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, an auditorium and a chapel. The retreat exudes the charm of a brutalist Prussian reformatory. It doesn’t sit well with the zeitgeist. Following several ill-fated reincarnations as a conference centre or international student campus, Franziskushaus has been self-quarantining from the outside world since 2013. But in these times of social-distancing, its stark austerity and aloneness might well turn out to be its strongest assets.
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 geometric compositions and modulor-controlled geometry. The architect’s signature interlocking tracts vertical fins, brusque window grids and protruding concrete elements are all in place. Whereas the La Tourette featured plenty of playfulness and eccentricity, Glaus had no such interest. Rough stucco and clinker flooring continue the robust sparseness inside. Colour accents, such as the red metal frames, and the blue carpets and doors in the bedrooms are later additions.
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 got itself 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, the concrete institution presents a sight absolutely uncommon in Switzerland. Visitors face a slightly eerie scene: still fully furnished the complex looks like it had been abandoned in a hurry by its inhabitants in the face of an imminent catastrophe. The absence of humans has its advantages, though: the combined forces of lichens, moss, ivy and shrubbery are quietly reclaiming the concretescape, reviving the weathered walls with verdant abundance and new possibilities. Who knows, in these pandemic times of great and unprecedented change the place’s very austerity and isolation might prove its biggest asset.