The latest work of Kengo Kuma, Haus Balma, appears as a dreamlike vision where architecture balances on the edge of reality and illusion.
You have to look twice before you understand its character. Thin layers of stone float in the air, "dancing" with the forces of gravity. It is precisely the steel cables that maintain this mystical structure, acting like invisible hands. As you circle around the building, it seems that the whole thing gently vibrates.
This illusion is subtle and almost poetic, a hallmark of most works by the architect Kengo Kuma. Yet, encountering it is a rarity, especially in the picturesque Swiss town of Vals, renowned for Peter Zumthor's Thermal Baths and his Vacation Homes perched atop a hill at 1500 meters above sea level, which we had the chance to visit last year.
This project had its ups and downs. Kengo Kuma dedicated a decade to crafting this building for a special client – the local Truffer AG family, experts in processing Valser quartzite slabs for the construction industry. The structure became their exquisite showcase piece. They sought something that seamlessly blended into the local context, and to the surprise of many, it was achieved. The choice of the architect fell on the eminent creator, yet cultural differences and working across such a distance presented challenging obstacles. Nonetheless, the effort invested in this project paid off.
The collaboration concept with Kengo Kuma for this edifice was serendipitous. The Truffer family was on a business trip attending a convention in China and stayed at a Beijing hotel that so captivated them they decided to reach out to its architect: Kengo Kuma! After several visits to Vals, the initial plans were conceived in 2012. Now, with completion attained, Haus Balma – its name originating from a Valser dialect term where "Balma" denotes a protruding rock offering shelter – evokes Japanese pagoda architecture, while simultaneously harkening to the local tradition of stone roofing.
Quartzite stones have long been utilized in Vals for street walls and roofing material. Presently, building codes still demand roofs to be covered with separate panels. Numerous renowned architects now also embrace quartzite: Peter Zumthor employed it in Therme Vals, the square in front of the Swiss Parliament in Bern is adorned with these stones, and luminaries like Norman Foster and Philippe Starck have similarly incorporated them, to name just a few.
Externally, the building boasts a transparent structure of alternating wooden and stone slabs, akin to a shutter. In total, there are 882 stone and 501 wooden panels, weighing a colossal 24 tons. The mounting points comprise over 5000 precision fasteners integrated into the stone and wood.
The design harmoniously melds with the surroundings of the traditional alpine village, not appearing as an alien element. Simultaneously, through its exceptional form and material usage, it offers a playful interpretation of the marriage between local architecture and modernity.