Bar and Leisure Focus: Spa Design

The purpose of a spa is to provide rest, rejuvenation and healing for body and mind. Here, five projects take inspiration from nature or from history to help with that process

Words by Kay Hill

If there’s one overall remit when creating a spa environment, it’s that it must promote calm. In an atmosphere where phones are banned and dressing gowns are the preferred attire, nothing about the architecture must be jarring or disturbing to the clientele. That isn’t to say, however, that spa design should be in any way bland or boring – and architects take a variety of different paths towards the goal of delivering a project that gets heartfelt sighs of approval from stressed-out visitors…

Mohr Life Resort Wellness Area Lermoos, Austria

Architect noa* network of architecture
Client Family Künster-Mantl
Project management EFP Planungs Gmbh
Construction Thurner-Franz
Structural engineer Nessler Ziviltechniker Gmbh
Pool technology Plan 4D GmbH

Mountains and Nature were an inspiration for architect Christian Rottensteiner, partner at Berlin-based noa* network of architecture, when he designed a new wellness area for the Mohr Life Resort in Tyrol, Austria.

The new glass and concrete spa building, set below the main hotel, has a striking modern form, designed to frame the stunning views of the 3,000m Zugspitze mountain that rises above the peaceful farmland of the Ehrwalder Becken valley.

The architect has described the 430 sq m building as a being like a theatre – turning spa-goers into the audience for the live performance of nature outside the windows.

‘The majestic and powerful presence of the mountain itself was our test bench,’ he says. ‘The Zugspitze generally – and its beauty, strength, and formal complexity specifically – was our inspiration.’

The wellness area was a new addition to an established hotel in the Lermoos ski resort, 80km from Innsbruck, and was intended to provide a relaxing, restorative and cocooning space that harmonised with nature. The glorious views can be enjoyed from the pool and its island areas, or on cooler days from indoor relaxation areas designed as theatre-style boxes. On the building’s exterior, the sheer glass surfaces that meet the still, outdoor pool became a screen for the mountain scenery to be viewed in reflection.

Forest Valley Hot Spring Center Long Hua, China

Architect B.L.U.E. Architecture Studio
Client SD Harvest Land Group Co
Construction drawing China Institute of Building Standard Design & Research Co
Interior design B.L.U.E. Architecture Studio
Curtain wall BWCG


Like many traditional spa facilities, Forest Valley, in the Hebei Province of China, is set in an area of volcanic activity and naturally occurring hot springs. ‘Most of the hot springs in the valley used to serve the locals,’ explains Shuhei Aoyama, co-founder of Beijing-based B.L.U.E. Architecture Studio. ‘In order to provide a place for people in a fast-paced urban life to slow down and relax, we wanted to create a unique experience by combining plants and hot springs. After walking through the entire valley and observing the surroundings, we chose a location in the centre of the deep valley. Surrounded by mountains and facing tranquil water, the site is a natural place full of serenity.

‘The design attempts to simulate and correspond to the shape of the mountain range through creating a form of spatial combination of soaring vertical solid towers and horizontal transparent glass boxes,’ he explains. Inside the spa, hot springs and heavily planted areas are interspersed, creating an oasis where spa-goers can soak in pools and wander through the trees, while being able to see nature in the wild through the large windows.

The 1,560 sq m spa, which was completed last year, comprises eight towers with different heights and angles, and a total of seven different pools spread over two storeys.


‘The eight towers are connected by walking trails on the first floor and by air corridors on the second floor,’ explains Aoyama. ‘They are all closed loops with no end, leaving plenty of possibilities of circulation for guests, just like walking in the forest. Along the circulation paths, small-scale functional spaces such as coffee shops, rest areas, make-up space and retail are scattered around to enrich the walking experience.’

Throughout the spa, the architects have used natural materials – volcanic stone, bamboo and timber – to make the most of the healing properties of biophilia. ‘In modern, fast-paced urban life, functional spaces like hot springs are becoming increasingly important,’ says Aoyama. ‘As people take off their clothes and shed the complexity of the outside world and their social identity, communication between human beings and nature becomes more honest and true. Forest Valley Hot Spring Center is providing a place and an opportunity for modern city people to encounter and interact with nature.’

Lefay Resort & Spa Dolomiti Pinzol, Italy

Interior design
Studio Apostoli
Architect Hugo Demetz/ DemetzArch
Client Lefay Resort Dolomiti
Contractor Paterlini Costruzioni Spa
Furniture Gabana Arredamenti
Spa and wellness Hofer Group /Stenal

Images: Sharon Radisch/Mattia Aquila

This 5,000 Sq m Spa, which opened last year in the Italian Alps, is one of the largest wellness centres in the region, with four floors dedicated to treatments and rituals, centred around a whirlpool filled with magnesium-rich water. The building was designed by architect Hugo Demetz following bio-architecture principals of creating an environment in harmony with nature, and using local materials including fir and larch wood and Adamello tonalite, a locally quarried granite-style stone, traditionally used for pasture fountains.

Studio Apostoli has developed the interiors along similar lines, using sustainable oak and chestnut woods as well as natural-looking fur and leather-style fabrics. The overall result is a mix of traditional mountain materials with contemporary styling that fits comfortably into the local forested landscape.

Images: Sharon Radisch/Mattia Aquila

Views out over that landscape are at the heart of the design, with vast windows bringing the outside in, enabling spa-goers to appreciate the mountains whether they are on a treadmill or soaking in a pool. Part of the design theme of the interiors has been to use the palette of natural materials to provide natural wayfinding clues, with different shades of stone floors and wall cladding helping spa-goers find their way around the zones of the wellness area.

Jiva Spa and Wellness Centre Taj Hotel, London

Architect Emil Eve Architects
Client Taj Hotels
Structural engineer Peter Laverack
Project Manager/QS Box Associates
Main contractor County Contractors
Pool contractor Penguin Pools
Bespoke plaster Clayworks
Lighting Viabizunno, Original BTC, Astro Lighting
Seating Hay + Tacchini, supplied by SCP

Image: Andy Stagg

Architect Ross Perkin, director at Emil Eve Architects, faced a challenge when it came to creating the 420 sq m Jiva Spa and Wellness Centre for Taj Hotels in the Victorian cellars of the Taj 51 Buckingham Gate Suites and Residences in London.

The project, which opened last year, is the first Jiva Spa in Europe, with a philosophy rooted in traditional Indian healing wisdom that needed to be reflected in elements of the project. ‘The design was conceived as an amalgamation of the Jiva philosophy and contemporary British design,’ explains Perkin. ‘Jiva, meaning life force, is inherently rooted in India’s ancient approach to wellness, and Jiva treatments draw on the rich and ancient heritage of India – the fabled lifestyle and culture of Indian royalty and healing therapies that embrace Indian spirituality. We sought to integrate key elements from the Jiva philosophy – water, light, nature – through the use of natural materials such as timber, copper, stone and clay plasters and the integration of planting into the scheme. Bespoke walnut joinery features patterned panels inspired by traditional Indian screens.’

One of the first decisions that Perkin made was to preserve the historic brickwork of the cellars, which was up to a metre thick in places and dated back to 1896. ‘The brickwork was generally very porous and required extensive repair work,’ he says. ‘But exposing the brickwork rather than taking the technically simpler route of lining out the space was important to us for two reasons.

Firstly, it meant we avoided losing precious space and, secondly, it enabled us to celebrate the character and history of the Victorian structure.’

Rather than tanking the area with modern materials, Perkin decided to have the brickwork manually cleaned, with pointing changed to breathable lime mortar and areas of concrete replaced with reclaimed clay bricks. A thin layer of black clay plaster was then applied to the entire surface and sealed to resist high levels of humidity, provide a thermal barrier, and create a beautiful, rich finish. It was a level of care that has just won the company an Architects’ Journal Specification Award for colour and finishes.

‘The concept was to use the constraints of the space to our advantage to create an intimate series of experiences,’ says Perkin. ‘By finishing the walls in the black, textured plaster, edges and boundaries blurred together, creating an illusion of additional depth to the spaces. The lighting was brought away from walls and ceilings, creating hovering golden accents within the rooms, creating further depth and adding to the cosy atmosphere.’

Espai CEL, Caldes De Montbui, Spain

Architect Arquetipus – Projectes Arquitectònics
Client Balneari Termes Victòria
Lead architect Maria Almirall

Image: Ferran Robusté

While some of the spas featured have been brand new buildings, benefitting from expansive views over nature, other architects have been challenged to create peaceful, relaxing spaces within the far more limited confines of historic buildings.

Architect Maria Almirall, director of Arquetipus, has recently won an Architecture MasterPrize award for restoration and renovation for her company’s work creating a new spa deep underneath the Balneari Termes Victoria hotel in the village of Caldes de Montbui, near Barcelona. The area has been known for its hot, thermal waters since Roman times, and the hotel itself dates back to the 17th century.

The Angli-Palaud family have run the hotel since the 1850s, and commissioned Arquetipus to create a unique new spa facility in the cellars under the hotel to complement the existing thermally heated swimming pool outside. ‘We entered the cellars that were created about 250 years ago and used historically as reservoirs for the hot thermal water,’ explains Almirall. ‘The reservoirs had always been hidden from visitors and their discovery was key to the design – we decided it was a captivating place to show off and turn into a unique space for the enjoyment of the senses.’

The vaulted cellars were transformed into a series of seven different pools, retaining as many of the historic features as possible while incorporating the modern facilities necessary in a spa. With the mineral-rich thermal water still flowing at up to 74°C through the ancient cellars, and a large stream running underneath the building, construction wasn’t a simple task – particularly as the hotel remained open throughout.

The finished result captures something of the Roman essence of the village, with rugged walls and historic artefacts giving it a timeless feel. Meanwhile, the lack of windows and natural light are turned into positive features, creating a safe, cocooning effect for those floating in the legendary healing waters.

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