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Zen and the Art of Spa Architecture

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The 21st-century spa is a temple of the sublime, carefully crafted to indulge all the senses. Minimalist spaces, meticulously lit and scented and sprinkled with such elements as reflecting pools and Japanese gardens, might inspire you to don a robe and engage in some monkish meditation while awaiting a massage. But a beckoning interior of tranquillity isn’t enough; the exterior must signal the altered state of mind within. As spas grow more sophisticated—and competition among them intensifies—expectations of spa design continue to rise. This is where the high priests of architecture come in.

Architect Mario Botta, probably best known for his design of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is the creative force behind the just-completed Botta Berg Oase (translation: Botta Mountain Oasis), part of the Tschuggen Grand Hotel in the village of Arosa, Switzerland (rooms, $500–$1,970; 41-81/378-9999; The four-story building, constructed in glass and rough-hewn Alpine granite, is connected to the hotel via a glass bridge. The most striking architectural feature is the group of nine towering, wedgelike "light trees" on the roof. Resembling the prows of giant canoes, they channel sunlight down into the interior, and the amount of light can be regulated to create varying ambiences throughout the day. At night they glow like beacons.

Inside, the facilities—including 11 treatment rooms and two pools—are done entirely in granite, light maple, and glass. One of the more unusual attractions is the Arosa Mountain Grotto, a space for meditation and reflection that you enter by passing through a curtain of water. Guests can also walk on stones in knee-deep water along the Kneipp Path, named for Sebastian Kneipp, the Bavarian priest who helped popularize hydrotherapy in the 19th century. The practice, in which you move through alternating spots of hot and cold, aids blood circulation.

The roof is also the centerpiece of Frank Gehry’s Ciudad del Vino complex at the 150-year-old Marqués de Riscal winery in Spain’s Rioja region. The massive canopy of swirling titanium ribbons—tinted in the rose, gold, and silver hues of wine bottles—is said to have been inspired by the movement of a flamenco dancer’s dress. It sits atop natural stone buildings that house a 43-room hotel, a cooking school, a restaurant, and the 15,000-square-foot Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa (rooms, $1,090–$1,400; treatments, from $90; 800-325-3589; The fourth Vinothérapie outpost, this one is arguably the most ambitious.

An oenologist’s dream, the spa provides treatments using products that highlight the antioxidant and antiaging benefits derived from grapes, although what’s applied and what’s imbibed is a matter of discretion. Gehry partnered with another architect, Yves Collet, to create 14 treatment rooms, including one with a wine barrel–shaped whirlpool where you can soak in a bath of grape extracts and essential oils. Another room has a shower enclosed by a circular thicket of bamboo hanging down from the ceiling as well as a floor of loose pebbles—walking on wet rocks is also said to improve circulation. And an unusual womblike room with a bell-shaped ceiling and sound-deadening walls is used for treatments.

Still another highlight is the Gehry-designed stone wall bordering one side of the tiled swimming pool. The rocks look misaligned, as if an earthquake had ripped them apart along a fault. This is a perfect place to relax, sample some of the Marqués de Riscal wines, and contemplate the vine root sculpture that weaves its way through the spa.

Given the natural beauty that surrounds these more remote spas, you might think an urban spa would find itself at a disadvantage. But a great thing about the ESPA at the G Hotel in Galway, Ireland, is its convenience (rooms, $290–$3,200; treatments, from $135; 353-91/865-200; Douglas Wallace, the Irish architectural firm that designed the hotel—with eccentric interiors by celebrity milliner and Galway native Philip Treacy—also did the award-winning spa, which is on the top two floors. Drawing on Japanese influences, the meditative spaces incorporate lots of polished stone, dark wood, and linen.

The facilities include four beauty suites, a vitality pool, tepidariums, a steam room, and a rock sauna on one floor and eight treatment rooms above it. Linking the two is a stairwell that rises over a black tranquillity pool ringed by white pebbles. The zen experience continues overhead—a flock of origami cranes, created by the artist Eva Menz, floats above the stairs as if in flight toward the bamboo gardens that lie just outside. The serene ESPA experience is a marked contrast to the out-and-out glamour of the rest of the hotel, although the aptly named Pink Salon, with its spiraling black-and-white rug, may bring to mind an Austin Powers moment. Oh, behave!


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