13 March 2015

Frei Otto, master of tent-like architecture, wins Pritzker Price one day before dying

Frei Otto, the architect behind some of the most important structures and engineering ideas of the last century, has died just two weeks before he was to receive the Pritzker Prize—the award that people often describe as the Nobel Prize for architecture.

Olympic stadium Munich, by Frei Otto 1972
Roof for Olympic park, Munich/Germany 1972
Football arena at Olympic stadium, Frei Otto, Munich/Germany 1972
Football arena at Olympic park, Munich/Germany 1972

(Thankfully Otto, born 1925, who died Monday at the age of 89 years, had already learned of the news, which he greeted with characteristic modesty: “I have never done anything to gain this prize” he said.)

Otto kept himself outside the fray of crazy-famous architects that defines the 1990s and 2000s. But without him, many of the structures and buildings of the past 50 years wouldn't exist. Because Otto wasn't just an architect—he was also a brilliant inventor and engineer who pioneered some of the most far-fetched feats of structural engineering ever completed.

Otto was obsessed with tensile structures—think the roof of a tent, where a piece of fabric hangs between two points in tension, versus a cabin, where the beams are in compression instead. And his obsession came from a very literal experience with tent-like shelters: As a soldier during the second World War, he spent two years as a prisoner of war in France where he built all manner of structures with anything he could find laying around, as The New York Times recounts today. Though he had been apprenticed as a stone mason before the war, he came out of the experience possessed by the idea of building with less.

Entrance Arch at the Federal Garden Exhibition, Frei Otto, Cologne/Germany 1957
Entrance Arch at the Federal Garden Show, Cologne/Germany 1957

You could trace his whole career back to those two years spend in captivity—the next five decades were spent trying to build the best spaces with as little as possible, as the Pritzker jury described today. That often meant using lightweight, inexpensive plastics or plexiglass strung between complex hardware frameworks to create huge, light-filled volumes that could be easily assembled and disassembled.

Bubbles. The wings of insects, bats, and birds. Spider webs. Trees. Otto's research into experimental structural engineering—often based on nature—was just as important as his buildings, especially since many of his buildings were temporary.

MIT published two volumes of it in the 1960s, packed with ideas about how tensile strength could be utilized in architecture, from membranes to pneumatics, each of which are now classics. His ideas about inexpensive, light-footprint buildings made him a hero to the progressive designers and inventors of the 1960s and 70s; the Whole Earth Catalog even published examples of his work.

The most famous example of this—the one you'll see a lot today—is his roof for the Munich Olympic Park for the Summer Olympics in 1972.

Roof for Olympic park, Freo Otto, Munich/Germany 1972
Detail, roof for Olympic park, Munich/Germany 1972

But the ghosts of the Third Reich influenced his work in other ways, too. As the Pritzker Jury alludes to:

    His architecture would always be a reaction to the heavy, columned buildings constructed for a supposed eternity under the Third Reich in Germany. Otto's work, in contrast, was lightweight, open to nature, democratic, low-cost, and sometimes even temporary.

It's a thread you can find running through all of his work—a direct reaction to the presumptuous idea that any building is forever, or that architecture is a tool for doing harm.

Aviary in the Munich Zoo at Hellabrunn, Munich/Germany 1980

Impermanence has definitely been the case with Otto's work. In some cases, photos are all that remain. But you can find his influence everywhere: From the NFL stadiums to Google, whose newly-announced complex is webbed with tensile netting that's directly inspired by Otto's work.

But in a 2005 interview with Icon Eye, he left young architects with a little advice about the difference between what you can build and what you should build:

"Maybe you know that I was a close friend of Bucky Fuller, and we debated the idea of large domes. But why should we build very large spaces when they are not necessary? We can build houses which are two or three kilometres high and we can design halls spanning several kilometres and covering a whole city but we have to ask what does it really make? What does society really need?"

Original article by gizmodo.com. Photos by Atelier Frei Otto, roof detail by Nils Gores

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