“Cities in flames seen from above are one of the toughest semesters for an architectural student.” Frei Otto, a well-known German architect, engineer, teacher, and author, was talking about his time as a trainee fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe. He said that watching the Third Reich burn from a Messerschmitt Bf 109 gave him ideas for a postwar architecture that would be open, democratic, not based on power, and free.
Frei Otto’s impact on the Olympics is huge, from the design of Rio’s Maracana stadium to the tent-like roofs he made for Munich in 1972.
Inspired by nature
Otto was the first person to build lightweight large-scale roof structures 60 years ago. He was inspired by the skulls of birds, soap bubbles, and spider webs. The late German architect’s work can be seen all over the world in pavilions and sports stadiums.
Pritzker Prize in Architecture
In 2015, just before he died, he was given the Pritzker prize, which is like the Nobel prise for architecture. Otto’s early designs were made possible by people who made tents. Today, aerospace, sailing, and even the arts all help to improve the design of lightweight tensile structures. These structures use fabrics and carbon fibre columns made with modern chemistry.
He had just started studying architecture at Berlin’s Technische Universität when he was called up to serve in the military during the Second World War. Since he had designed and flown gliders, it made sense for him to join the Luftwaffe.
But Otto’s parents were part of the Deutscher Werkbund, which was started in 1907 by forward-thinking artists, designers, architects, and patrons. Otto was horrified by what the Nazis had done, both in terms of art and politics. Their huge, neo-classical buildings that stood at attention in public squares near parade grounds showed how powerful the Third Reich was.
In 1948, Otto went back to architecture school in Berlin. He then spent six months studying at the University of Virginia. In the US, he met Charles Eames, Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, and, most of all, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, all of whom he admired as an architect. Mies was the architectural director of the Deutscher Werkbund and the last director of the Bauhaus before it had to close in 1933. He went on to teach and shape his radical new style of architecture in the United States. Otto was a firm believer in his famous saying that “less is more.” The architect’s job was to have as little effect on nature as possible and to learn from natural design. For Otto, this meant looking at the shapes of crab shells, bird heads, spider webs, and bubbles on the surface of water. Otto had a long career that began in 1952 when he opened his own studio in Berlin. He worked with other architects, engineers, scientists, and artists in a spirit of democratic collaboration to build things like the floating, net-like roofs of the German pavillion at the innovative Expo 67 in Montreal, the famous Summer Olympics stadium in Munich (1972), and the ultra-lightweight aviary at Munich Zoo (1980).
Influenced British Architects
Otto had a strong influence on a generation of “high-tech” architects in Britain, including Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, Michael Hopkins, and Nicholas Grimshaw. Otto’s influence can be seen in the lightweight fabric roof of the Mound Stand at Lord’s cricket ground (1987), the bubble-like domes of the Eden Project in Cornwall (2000), and the “bubble-wrap” structure of the National Space Centre in Leicester (2001).
As POW developed skills
Otto was born in Siegmar, Saxony. He could have become a sculptor like his father, but instead he became an architect. After he was taken prisoner in Nuremberg in April 1945, he spent two years in a French prisoner-of-war camp near Chartres. There, he used his growing skill to make shelters and other useful buildings out of very little. After the war, he went back to school and learned about the work of Vladimir Shukhov, a brilliant Russian structural engineer and polymath who lived from 1853 to 1939. Shukhov invented lightweight tensile, gridshell, diagrid, and hyperbolic structures more than half a century before computers could help with the calculations needed for such radical designs. In the United States, he was mesmerised by the light, beautiful JS Dorton Arena (1952) in Raleigh, North Carolina, which was designed by the Polish engineer Matthew Nowicki, who was born in Siberia.
Educator Germany and USA
Otto taught in Germany and the US and also did design work. He set up a series of university research institutes that overlapped with each other to learn more about lightweight structures and how to use them. Some of these were started by the biologist Johann Gerhard Helmcke, like the Biology and Building group in Berlin and the Institute of Lightweight Structures in Stuttgart. He wrote a lot. His books Tensile Structures (two volumes, 1962–66), Biology and Building (1972), Pneu and Bone (1995), and Finding Form: Towards an Architecture of the Minimal (1995) are still interesting and useful.
Otto got married to Ingrid Smolla in 1952, and they had five children. Christine Otto Kanstinger became an architect and joined her father in his atelier in Warmbronn, near Stuttgart, in 1983. In the meantime, when one of his best German students, Mahmoud Bodo Rasch, became a Muslim in 1974, work picked up in the Middle East. Otto worked with Rasch on designs like the “umbrellas” that opened up in 1992 in the paved prayer area outside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina to provide shade when the sun was at its strongest.The British engineering firm Buro Happold also worked on this project, just as it did with Otto and the architects ABK on a lovely workshop for the Parnham Trust School for Woodland Industries in Hooke, Dorset. The workshop was built in 1989 with a vaulted structure made of stressed and exposed spruce thinnings. This is an example of how nature and advanced structural design can work together. A decade later, Otto helped Buro Happold and the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban design a pavillion for Expo 2000 in Hanover. The roof of this pavillion was made out of paper.
Otto was always coming up with new ideas, just like his American friend Buckminster Fuller. In his later years, he looked just like the ideal, strict German scientist-professor. He was thin and angular, and he had a shock of white hair. He was, however, a warm humanist who loved nature and had high hopes for the world. He always planned ahead and built, he said “castles in the sky”, even as he worked to shape environmentally responsible lightweight structures on the ground. Days before he died he was told that he had been awarded the 2015 Pritzker prize for architecture. “Frei stands for freedom,” said Lord Palumbo, chair of the prize jury, “as free and as liberating as a bird … and as compelling in its economy of line and in the improbability of its engineering as it is possible to imagine.”
Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing. https://amzn.to/3ElmSlL
“Frei Otto Obituary | Architecture | The Guardian.” The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com, 13 Mar. 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/mar/13/frei-otto.
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