The architectural world suffered a great loss last month when German designer Frei Otto died at age 89. Just days earlier he had learned that he had been chosen as the recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Prize, often described as architecture’s Nobel. When the prize is actually ceremonially awarded, Otto will become its first posthumous winner, and will without a doubt be a deserved winner, for his work has spanned many years, countries, and disciplines. As well as architecture, Otto studied and used civil engineering and chemistry among other sciences; he was in this sense comparable to the great polymath Buckminster Fuller. The only thing questionable about the Pritzker committee’s decision to award him the prize is why that decision wasn’t made years ago.
Otto was born in Saxony in 1925 to a stonemason father and sculptor mother. After the Second World War, he studied at the Technische Universitat in Berlin. He quickly obtained a trademark style which made waves in Europe and America. On first sight, this style could be described as “tents”; however, upon closer inspection, Otto’s architecture is revealed to be much deeper. His tensile, lightweight structures looked like tents and many were just as temporary; however, these “tents” were of unprecedented size, modernity, and elegance. The fact that his membrane structures appear to billow and float belies the fact that they are composed of tonnes of steel and glass held taut by remarkable feats of engineering, design analysis, and invention, much of which was done by Otto himself.
Otto’s style materialized even before he studied at architecture school. Drafted into the Luftwaffe, he was shot down over France and imprisoned near Chartres. Having trained as a stonemason with his father, he was appointed the camp architect. Though stone was in short supply, Otto thrived, instead learning to build with minimal materials that were often sourced from nature. Throughout his subsequent career, biomimicry and efficiency have featured in his work. Otto also stated in later years that his work was an antithesis to the brutal monumentalism of Nazi architects like Albert Speer.
An example of Otto’s experimentation
Thus, from the beginning Otto had visions of tents and bubbles and membranes, but these visions were not technically feasible, and were so original that there was no precedent for how they could be built . Otto began his own personal experimentation as soon as he was out of university; in the fifties, some of his technical dissertations on suspended roofs were published by MIT. He found cable-net roofs to be the best medium with which to create his tensile forms, and warped them into saddles, cones and waves. For even his most complex shapes he used physical models, often using soap membranes to find minimal surfaces between supports, masts, and struts. Otto would have such a major role in all areas of his projects that it is sometimes debated whether he should be labelled an architect or an engineer. That being said, he was always willing to collaborate, especially with engineers and biologists. He often bemoaned the lack of interdisciplinary research.
The 1972 Munich Olympic Complex
Otto’s portfolio of projects is small compared to previous Pritzker winners (and his portfolio of extant projects is even smaller- many of his buildings were temporary) but what he lacked in quantity he made up in quality and ingenuity. His most famous work is the Munich Olympic Complex, constructed for the 1972 games. The main stadium became instantly recognizable: an arc of steel and glass draped over dozens of masts. Anchored by concrete abutments at either end, the stretched roof was a delicate balancing act of a design. Other notable works include the German Pavillion at Expo ‘67, which was the first time he made an international demonstration of his philosophies, and the Japanese Pavilion at Expo 2000, which, designed in conjunction with Shigeru Ban, unorthodoxly utilized cardboard tubes as the principal structural members. Perhaps more widespread than Otto’s own work is the work inspired by it, such as Khan Shatyr, Norman Foster’s humungous Kazakh tent, and the recently announced Google headquarters designed by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, which are draped in membranes similar to those used by Otto. Otto’s unbuilt work must also be mentioned. His giant cable-net domes, such as one that he proposed would cover a city of 40,000 people, were unfeasible but served to demonstrate the potential of Otto’s experimentation and design.
Otto and Ban’s Japanese Pavilion
I’ll conclude with what I think is a very insightful quote by otto on the subject of the engineering process: “The computer can only calculate what is already conceptually inside of it; you can only find what you look for in computers. Nevertheless, you can find what you haven’t searched for with free experimentation.” For sure, this is an idea for engineering students to ponder.
Stamp showing the now-demolished Montreal Pavilion
BIG and Heatherwick’s Otto-inspired Google campus
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