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Franziskushaus, abandoned former retreat house, conference centre and student campus, Otto Glaus, 1969, Swiss brutalism. Explore more on Heartbrut.com

Franziskus House

Picture of Words & Photography: Karin Bürki

Words & Photography: Karin Bürki

Austere, abandoned, forgotten – is Franziskus House the perfect socially-distanced retreat destination?

Originally designed as a retreat house for the Capuchin order, the Franziskushaus is located on a forest hillside near Dulliken, a village near Olten in the Swiss midlands. Based on Le Corbusier’s La Tourette monastery in France, the bold, interlocking concrete structure comprises over 80 bedrooms, various meeting rooms, a large kitchen, an auditorium and a chapel. Architect Otto Glaus, a trained painter and decorator who worked with Le Corbusier in Paris, also designed the furniture and interiors. With the ascetic charm of a brutalist Prussian reformatory, the interfaith education centre and retreat is one of the most radical examples of post-war Swiss sacral architecture and was listed as a historic monument in 2012.

After a failed repositioning as an international student campus in the same year, Franziskus House is now a ‘lost space’. In 2023, the concrete icon was brutally torn from its Sleeping Beauty state by three fires and various acts of vandalism. With numerous broken windows and disfigured by large-scale graffiti, it is questionable whether Franziskus House can – or will – ever be brought back to life.

Le Corbusier once defined the basic needs of modern monastic design needs as: “Space and light and order. These are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep”. With Franziskus House, Otto Glaus, a former student, followed his master to the letter. The French original’s characteristic interlocking tracts, vertical fins, brusque window grids and protruding concrete elements are all present. While La Tourette also had plenty of playfulness and eccentricity, Glaus took no such interest. He was a firm believer in rigid, unadorned geometric compositions. Rough stucco and clinker floors continue the robust sparseness inside. Only the dark blue radiators and carpets in the bedrooms and add a bit of playfulness. Other colour accents, such as the red metal window frames, were added later.
Franziskus House has had a colourful history this side of the century: an interfaith retreat and educational centre since 2001, the complex was carefully refreshed in 2012. In the same year, it acquired a new owner who repositioned the retreat as an international student campus. This venture failed. In 2016, the property was auctioned for 2.53 million Swiss francs to AKB Bank, which in turn sold it in 2019. The current owner, an entrepreneur and property developer, hasn’t yet revealed his plans. Abandoned since 2013, but still fully furnished, the complex looks as if its occupants had left in a hurry in the face of impending disaster. But the absence of humans has its advantages: the combined forces of lichen, moss, ivy and shrubs are quietly reclaiming the concrete landscape, reviving the weathered walls with green abundance and new possibilities.
Franziskushaus, abandoned former retreat house, conference centre and student campus, Otto Glaus, 1969. © Karin Bürki. Explore more on Heartbrut.com

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Ferro Haus, Pyramide am See, Justus Dahinden, © Karin Buerki/Heartbrut. Explore more on Heartbrut.com
Église Saint Nicolas, Walter Maria Förderer, Hérémence, 1967-1971, Swiss Brutalism, © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut. Explore more on Heartbrut.com
082121-BUENDNERKUNSTMUSEUMCHUR-©-KARINBUERKI-HEARTBRUT-1
Roccolo, Seminar Centre, Retreat, Miller & Maranta, Castasegna, Val Bregaglia, 2004, © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut, Swiss Brutalism. Explore more on Heartbrut.com