Science Center Story #5: A Town, A Bath, A Lot of Rock, and a Pair of Hiking Boots

by Larry Schall

10 October 2002

 < caveat: this story does not deal centrally with the Science Center project, but seemed to fit within the spirit of Larry Schall's previous stories, and so I obtained permission to include it here. Carr Everbach, webmaster>

I returned this afternoon from Vals, a village of 900 in the Swiss Alps, just a few kilometers north of the Italian border. The first people to come to Vals beat me by about 700 years.

My hosts were Pia and Pius Truffer, owners together with Pius's brother Mario, of the Truffer Quarry, situated just a few kilometers upstream from the village center.

Let me begin with what brought me to Vals. The College's new residence hall, fully designed now, has a stone exterior (of course). We had all assumed that one of the quarries local to our area would be the most logical and cost efficient source of the stone, despite the fact that it was being prepared in a way different than is typical on campus &endash; it's actually cut rather than split. At the time of our final estimate, we approached the owners of our local quarries for pricing (a cost that was to include quarrying the stone, cutting it, and delivering it to the College on the schedule that we needed). The bids came back and each was substantially higher than we had projected. Further discussions failed to produce a lower price. At that point, we asked our architects to explore other possible sources. To make what will be a long story a bit shorter, when all was said and done, a small quarry in southeast Switzerland, represented in the U.S. by a small company in Wisconsin, underbid everyone - this included the full costs of bringing the stone right to our front door.

Thus, Switzerland became our destination.

Why in the world anyone would have to actually visit a quarry? Why can't you just select a stone, look at approved samples and call it a day? I wrote about this very subject six or more years ago in relation to Kohlberg, but I will repeat a bit of that explanation here. Let's use the science center as an example. The specifications for the stone stated, in simplified form, that it was to be Wissahickon Schist from one of two local quarries. However, you'd be amazed at how different the stone from within one of these quarries can be, depending on where in the quarry it comes from and how it is prepared. In order to control for this variation, mock-ups (sample wall sections) are prepared to review and approve. Once a mock-up is approved, it serves as the model for the stone masons building the actual facades. In the case of the Science Center, the team required close to ten different mock-ups over a series of weeks before one was approved. With a local source, it was relatively easy to make trip after trip on different days to inspect each new wall section. With the stone coming from a great distance, it made more sense to compress the examination and mock-up process into a few intense days.

The team that traveled to Switzerland included people representing the same disciplines as a visit to a U.S. quarry - - the client (that's us), the designer (William Rawn Associates), the builder (W.S. Cumby) and a geologist who was to certify the stone for the intended use (Wiss Janney Elstner). The cost of the visit and inspection were figured in when we compared the bids from all the potential sources of stone.

Enough background, I'm sure.

Back to Pia and Pius. The two met in 1975, when she was 14 and he 19, a member of the Swiss National Ski Team. Both had grown up in Vals, were married in a small chapel on a mountain overlooking the village and have raised their four children there. Oh yes, the children. Socrates, Artemis (the only girl), Attila, and Zenon, who would have been Medea if a girl, but instead was anointed with the middle name of Nebuchadnezzar.

I asked Pia if she would tell me the story behind the names. She smiled shyly and cast a nervous glance at Pius sitting two seats away to see if he was listening. He was definitely listening.

The name thing was Pius' idea. With Socrates, Pia was certain this was a very bad idea. Expectations a bit too high maybe? As bad an idea as she thought Socrates was, however, this was nothing compared to what her parents thought. I suspect there were many lively conversations around the dinner table over the years. I think the discussion of Nebutkatnezar may have been the wildest. Zenon is four, and when I asked Pia if he knew his middle name, she shook her head no. Pius quickly inserted, "Of course he does &endash; I call him that when we are alone together." After a few glances between husband and wife, I moved us back to our favorite topic&endash;stone. From my little time around the children, none appears to have been negatively affected in the least by their names.

Pius' father was a stone cutter in the quarry at a time when everything was done by hand. Pius himself worked as a young man alongside his father. Since its beginning two or so centuries ago, the quarry had been used almost exclusively for small local projects. In Vals, by the way, every home has thick stone roof &endash; it's actually the law. Many of the roofs have been in place for three or more centuries and they still don't leak.

In 1982, Pius, his brother Mario and Pia bought the quarry and made it their life's work. For you movie buffs, Mario was James Bond's double for all the downhill ski scenes in Her Majesties' Secret Service. When I asked Pius and Pia how they decided on a life in the quarry, they laughed. How did they decide on such a hard living? I never did get an answer.

Today, Truffer Quarry is home to one of the most modern and well equipped production facilities in all of Switzerland. While they have quarried stone for many projects, including the international headquarters in Geneva of one of the world's largest banks, the story of Truffer is the story of the town of Vals and one very special building.

Until recent years, Vals, like almost all of the remote mountain towns in the Alps, has been losing its population to the big cities. Those who did not leave were growing older. In the 1970's a private developer built a large bath and hotel, and for a while it operated successfully. Over time, though, the appeal of the project declined and eventually the bank took over. After four or five years, the idea of the village itself buying the bath and hotel from the bank began to be explored. A few leading members of the community, including Pius (Pia, by the way, was opposed to the whole idea) and Peter Schmidt, a man whom you will later meet, were two of the central figures in this venture. They believed that the village was in an inevitable decline and unless some significant measures were taken toward revitalization, this downward spiral would continue and the village's population would soon be half of what it was-- with disastrous economic consequences.

Many of the villagers opposed the whole investment from the start. It was too risky and too expensive. Vals had been a wonderful home for their families; any change was a bad idea. One detail I have omitted -- the cost of the plan to build the new bath was to be $20 million dollars: half from debt to the bank and half from cash raised from each and every resident of the village through an increase in taxes.

When I asked Pius to describe the process of deciding whether to proceed with the project, he just kept repeating, "It was very long," and, I know, very contentious. Pius described a cultural practice in the village that had gone on for centuries &endash; people would warmly greet one another on the street as they passed. During the process of deciding whether or not to undertake the bath project, this cultural artifact began to break down; feelings were very strong. In the end, the village voted in a referendum to proceed and today, virtually no one believes it was not the right thing to do. The baths are the largest employer in the village. The sparkling water factory, Valser, is the second biggest; it was just purchased by Coca-Cola. Young people have stayed in town and new people have come. Property values have increased and the baths are a source of pride for the entire village.

On one evening, Pius and I drove alone to Chur for dinner. We had about an hour to talk about politics, the economy, Saddam and George, and at some length about the decision of the town to hire Peter Zumthor to design the new bath. Zumthor is now a hero in Vals and largely as a result of the bath, he is also one of the most sought after architects in the world. He just returned from a speaking engagement in Japan with almost 3000 people in the audience and far more unable to get a ticket.

Zumthor, it turned out, had been invited by Pius to be our surprise guest at dinner. Zumthor is Swiss and lives about an hour from Vals. He is clearly an intellectual but also warm, extremely funny and completely engaging. He trained in New York City at Pratt in the 60's, was radicalized along with his fellow students, and spent a decade trying to change the world rather than designing anything. He confirmed Pius' story about his selection. Rather than tell the town he would carefully listen to them and build them exactly what they wanted, he pretty much told them that was the one thing he wouldn't do. What he promised was that he would design a building like no other-- one that reflected the spirit and character of the village. He was different and he clearly takes pride in being different. In order to design something the town would love, he needed to be left alone; there would be no design by committee. Zumthor believes in the old-fashioned relationship between architect and client, one characterized by trust and commitment, but also one in which the client has little or no role in design decisions. He described himself as slow. He also prefers, and because of his fame is now able to honor that preference, to work with clients who can afford to pay for careful design using quality materials. In short, selecting Zumthor was a choice to spend some serious francs.

He was not a popular choice at first. He appeared a bit crazy and certainly very opinionated. He was quite expensive and residents would have little say in what was to be built (remember, each of them was paying for this). Nevertheless, the choice of Zumthor stuck and he set off (slowly) to design the bath. When he finished and was to present the design to the community, there was one problem. Zumthor didn't like his own building. At dinner, he described his ability to shut his eyes and in his mind, walk himself through every nook and cranny of his building even before it's built. In this case, as he entered a room, he immediately knew he didn't like what he was seeing. What else was there to do but begin again? Needless to say a decision like this to begin again means a lot more time and money. When I asked Pius about the cost, he just smiled and acknowledged that this was a very interesting time. This second design--the one that was actually built--was nothing at all like the first. All I can say is the result is one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had. Rather than trying to describe it, see it for yourself. The website is Pictures don't do it justice.

The one consistent theme of virtually every moment of the trip was stone. Every conversation began there, ended there, and somehow got there in the middle. We spent hours and hours in the quarry itself. When we arrived on Monday morning, at the far end was an immense boulder, perhaps 12 meters (around 40 feet) square. The rock weighed 150 tons &endash; our total job here is only 130 tons. In order to begin to get this large stone down to manageable proportions, it needed to be blasted - - it had already been dynamited off the quarry wall the week before in anticipation of our arrival. They had waited for our trip to make the second blast and invited me to light the fuse. I kept hearing my mother shouting in my ear, "Lawrence, you are not going to light that thing!" Of course I did, but Mom, you can trust that I asked in about every possible way how long I had to get away. Did I have to sprint or was a four-minute mile pace sufficient? Pius told me just to walk away slowly and steadily, although about half-way back, he urged me to pick up the pace.

Our stone conversations never stopped. Not during the nine-hour hike and climb into the Alps to see the stone in its natural state, weathered over millions of years, nor over every breakfast, lunch, dinner or car ride. Essentially, we were trying to comprehend the whole process, beginning with blasting the stone off the quarry wall to the completion of the building &endash; step by step. From the selection of which section of quarry to blast, to the method of breaking that huge boulder into blocks of less than 25 tons each so they could be moved, cut into slabs which are then cut into building blocks of different thicknesses and lengths and color, loaded onto pallets for delivery to the building site and finally unbanded and set into a wall by masons. The over-riding issue was to understand how all these processes had led to the mix of stones on the walls of the bath. Because these are cut stones, the face of each stone is quite varied from the next. Some are gray (light or dark); others are black or white (because of the presence of a lot of quartz). Within each color is an immense amount of variation and pattern. The magical thing about the walls of the bath is how all these variations come together, with every wall unique and perfect. Where did this variation come from? Did it simply happen because of the natural variation of the stone? Did the quarry workers intentionally create the variations through selection of slabs and the mixing of stone on the pallet? Or perhaps the masons in the field were responsible. What role, if any, did the architect play in this whole plan?

At times I thought if I heard one more word about how randomness happens I would jump off the nearest Alp. But usually, refreshed from a few hours sleep, the conversation would begin again and I would be drawn right back in. The Swiss, by the way, at least the ones we were hanging with, seem to stay up very late and awaken every day at 6:00 a.m. when the church bells (right outside my hotel window) rang incessantly for what seemed like a week. As someone who never, ever drinks coffee, I found myself desperately looking forward to my next espresso.

I know I need to bring this to a close. Let's go back to my title. I've covered the town, the bath, and the rock, but no mention yet of the hiking boots. In addition to Pia and Pius, our host was a man named Peter Schmidt. Peter was everywhere we were and I suspect that while we were asleep (until that darling church bell began to ring); Peter was hard at work planning for the next day. I have lots of examples as to why Peter should actually be running something like the Philadelphia Public Schools or the New York City Subway System &endash; I promise you, he would get them working in a day or two &endash; but let me use the hiking boots as an example. I think it was sometime late Monday morning when Peter asked us all if we would like to take a hike on Tuesday up into the mountains to see the stone in its most natural state. Seemed like a fine idea, a couple hours each way and we'd be back before the workers in the quarry had completed the mock-up from the stones we had selected.

He asked us if we all had decent hiking shoes and inspected what each of us was wearing. I had on my 10-year old boots that had served me very well in many hikes in the Rockies, the Andes, and other fairly serious places. I told Peter I was fine. He told me I was wrong and asked me my shoe size. We left the quarry Monday evening at about 6:30 p.m. and drove to a small home in the village. In the living room were spread out multiple piles of boots, ski jackets, fleece parkas, gloves, hats, ski pants and finally a table of helmets and climbing harnesses. For those uninitiated in the world of alpine affairs, for a hike in the Pocono's a helmet and harness are not standard equipment. We, however, were headed to the peak of Zervailhorn, a mountain we had been admiring since our arrival that appeared to poke through the clouds far off in the distance. Peter and Pius didn't seem like foolish men (up until then, anyhow), but more importantly, we all represented the source of a lot of money for the quarry and I figured it was not in their plans to kill us. Let me get back to the shoes.

I had assumed, as we were trying on clothes and shoes, that the owner of the house in addition to his day job ran a trekking outfit, leading trips into the Alps and renting whatever equipment his clients needed. The clothes and equipment spread before us were just a selection of his inventory. So, when it appeared that my feet were too small for any pair of boots he had brought, I expected him to head back to his stash and bring out additional footgear for me to try on. That was not the case, though, for reasons I didn't get. Peter just told me they would take care of me by the morning, which by the way we discovered was to begin at 6:00 a.m. As you might remember, thanks to my neighbor the church, this was perfect timing.

Dinner that night was at eight and a little before one a.m., after hours of conversations about randomness and stone, the chef appeared at our table. Everyone else in the place had disappeared hours before. The food had been exquisite. The chef, who obviously knew Peter and Pius well, looked over my way. I began to thank him for preparing such a glorious meal. He seemed far less interested in food than he was in the plastic bag in his hand. Pius asked me to get up &endash; I was thinking I was getting the key to the city or some such honor &endash; and then he began to remove one hiking boot after another from the bag. One set belonged to the chef himself, another were his son's, I think. The third were those of the hotel manager's teenage boy. I'm forgetting about the socks, but that's a diversion from the main tale. Now it was all becoming clear. All the gear that was gathered in the living room of the house as well as these new late-night additions had come from villagers. I had this image of dozens of men walking through the village in their socks. It's then I finally got it. Swarthmore was not buying stone from a company; it was becoming a partner with an entire town. It all made sense now -- at 6:30 the next morning, as our van headed to the mountain out of town, we even saw a half-dozen men on the street waiting for the bus, buried in their warm jackets and heads covered with Swarthmore College baseball caps. I'm not kidding! Someone had ordered a supply of hats from the bookstore via the internet, and they arrived just in time for our visit. I had entered the Twilight Zone.

After more than nine hours on Zervailhorn &endash; about twice the time they had anticipated &endash; we all set foot back in the valley floor. I could say we had taken our time because we were all enjoying ourselves so much or I could say that we were so exhilarated when we reached the summit that we sat there for hours. We did, by the way, all reach the summit after climbing the last 600 feet harnessed-up and tied together by ropes. We didn't, though, spend hours there. We were just slow, like Peter Zumthor, I guess. There was one more hurdle left, even after completing our climb back down the mountain. That was the river - - a little one, I'll admit - - but still with no apparent way across. As we were lying in the field each counting our aches and pains, a man appeared on the other side of the water, coming out of a small stone house likely some 500 years old (with, of course, a stone roof that had never leaked). He was carrying something long and heavy. A bridge. This was the first (and last) time I saw Peter and Pius surprised. He was bringing a bridge for the Americans. How, I asked, could he possibly know there were Americans from Vals climbing Zervailhorn? They just smiled. He knew, everyone knew.

That's the image that has remained with me. A bridge to a village with its people wearing Swarthmore hats, thousands of miles away from home.

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