Austere, abandoned, forgotten – is Franziskushaus the perfect socially-distanced retreat destination?
Originally designed as a Capuchin order retreat house, Franziskushaus sits on a forest slope just outside Dulliken, a village near Olten in the Swiss midlands. Drawing on Le Corbusier’s design for La Tourette monastery in France, the interlocking structure comprises over 80 bedrooms, various conference rooms, a large kitchen and a chapel. The austere retreat exudes the charm of a brutalist Prussian reformatory. After undergoing several reincarnations from conference centre to international student campus, Franziskushaus has been self-quarantining from the outside world since 2013. But in these pandemic times, the future for this slumbering beauty might look rather bright.
Le Corbusier once defined the basic modern monasterial design needs as: «Space and light and order. Those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep». With Franziskushaus, Glaus, a former disciple, follows his master to the letter. He was a firm believer in rigid, no-frills, modulor-controlled geometry and sculptural composition. His signature interlocking cubes, vertical fins, brusque window grids and protruding concrete elements are all in place in the retreat’s vertically and horizontally stepped tracts. Rough stucco, wood-panelled ceilings and terracota floor tiling continue the robust sparseness inside.
Whereas the La Tourette featured plenty of playfulness and eccentricity, Glaus had no such interest. His only decorative concessions are the window frames in glazed Scotch pine and the blue carpets and doors inside (a trained interior designer, Glaus liked to take care of the indoors).
Franziskushaus paints a colourful history this side of the century: serving as an interfaith retreat and conference centre since 2001, the complex was carefully restored in 2012. In the same year, it received cantonal listed status as well as a new owner, who repositioned the retreat as an ‘International Student Campus’. That venture failed. In 2016 the property was auctioned off to AKB bank for 3.53 Swiss franks, which in turn sold it in 2019. The current owner, an entrepreneur and property developer, hasn’t revealed his plans yet.
Deserted since 2013, Franziskushaus presents a slightly eerie scene: locked up but still fully furnished the building looks like it had been abandoned hurriedly by its inhabitants in the face of an imminent catastrophe. While the property has fallen into a deep slumber, the combined forces of lichens, moss, ivy and shrubbery are quietly reclaiming the concretescape, reviving the weathered walls with verdant abundance and new possibilities. In these pandemic times, Franziskushaus looks like the perfect destination for a socially-distanced retreat.