“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 vast, 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 to build lightweight large-scale roof structures 60 years ago. The skulls of birds, soap bubbles, and spider webs inspired him. The late German architect’s work can be seen worldwide in pavilions and sports stadiums.
Pritzker Prize in Architecture
In 2015, just before he died, he was given the Pritzker Prize, like the Nobel Prize 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 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.
“Planning and building are not ends in themselves; they are a means to an end, namely, the improvement of human life.”
But Otto’s parents were part of the Deutscher Werkbund, 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 vast, 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 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 closed in 1933. He went on to teach and shape his radical new style of architecture in the United States. Otto firmly believed 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 water’s surface. Otto’s long career began in 1952 when he opened his 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 pavilion 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 strongly influenced 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 being taken prisoner in Nuremberg in April 1945, he spent two years in a French prisoner-of-war camp near Chartres. He used his growing skill to make shelters and other valuable 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, grid shell, 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, designed by the Polish engineer Matthew Nowicki, who was born in Siberia.
Educators in Germany and the 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. The biologist Johann Gerhard Helmcke started some of these, 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 helpful.
Otto married 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, 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 in 1992 in the paved prayer area outside the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina to provide shade when the sun was strongest. The British engineering firm Buro Happold also worked on this project 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 stressed and exposed spruce-thinning structure. This exemplifies how nature and advanced structural design can work together.
- Mannheim Multihalle (1975) – A large-scale timber grid shell structure built for the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Garden Show) in Mannheim, Germany.
- Munich Olympic Stadium Canopy (1972) – The iconic tent-like roof structure that covered the main stadium for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany.
- Institute for Lightweight Structures, University of Stuttgart (2001) – A research and educational facility studying lightweight structures and tensile architecture. It showcases many of Otto’s concepts and designs.
- Japan Pavilion, Expo ’70 (1970) – Designed for the World Expo held in Osaka, Japan, this pavilion featured a lightweight lattice structure and fabric roof.
- Aviary at the Munich Zoo (1980) – A suspended cable net structure with a translucent membrane roof that houses birds in a natural environment.
- Frei Otto Archive and Institute for Lightweight Structures, University of Stuttgart (2005) – Otto designed this building to house his vast collection of models, plans, and documents as a research centre for lightweight structures.
- Stadium Roof for the Allianz Arena (2005) – Otto collaborated with Herzog & de Meuron architects to create the innovative retractable roof structure for the Allianz Arena in Munich, Germany.
These are just a few examples of Frei Otto’s influential designs that showcase his exploration of lightweight, tensile structures and his dedication to creating sustainable and human-centric architecture.
Otto always came up with new ideas 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 white hair. He was, however, a warm humanist who loved nature and had high hopes for the world. He always planned 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 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 the improbability of its engineering as it is possible to imagine.”
“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.