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Frei Otto: Lightweight Construction, Natural Design At the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, until 28 August

Munich is a city that has always rated architecture highly, all the more so now that there is space dedicated to architecture at the Pinakothek der Moderne. Administratively, the architectural galleries are run by the Technical University of Munich, but in no sense do they feel cut off or separate.

Located directly next to the entrance rotunda, they are the most prominent and probably the most visited part of the building. Never mind that the gallery spaces are not that suitable or exciting; their size and location reflect the esteem in which architecture is held.

Munich is not Frei Otto's home town, but it is entirely appropriate that this year's major exhibition in the galleries is dedicated to his work. Few people will have the chance to visit his projects in Saudi Arabia, and his pavilion at the Montreal Expo was demolished 30 years ago - but there in Munich for all to see are the Olympic Stadium (1972) and the Aviary at the zoo (1980).

True, the stadium has partly lost out to Herzog & de Meuron's Allianz Arena, which better suits the way football is now commercially packaged, but it still possesses an utterly daring freedom of form. And the birds still seem to be content with their huge, diaphanous steel-mesh enclosure.

It is not just local pride that makes this an exceptional exhibition. Otto is an ideal subject because he has always worked with sketches and models, relying on intuition and the lessons of the natural world, rather than computer analysis. Indeed, his earlier projects predated the arrival of modern computers, which only began to be introduced (slightly against his wishes) in the design of the Olympic Stadium roofs.

Many of Otto's most famous models are on show, including the suspension model to establish the double curvature of the grid shell for Mannheim Bundesgartenschau (1975), as well as countless explorations for unfinished projects. The sketches examine every conceivable link between natural construction and manmade membranes, nets and pneumatic forms, always more of a sculptural than an engineering character.

The most surprising exhibit, because it is less well-known to admirers of his work, is the eco-houses project in Berlin (1991). There, he helped evolve the idea of a partially self-build construction in which the infrastructure and skeleton frame were provided, but individual residents installed the rest of their homes. The parallels with his more famous projects - the quest for adaptability and the avoidance of monumentality - are obvious.

There are two things that are difficult to convey through an exhibition, especially one dedicated to a living hero. One is the exchange and tension between different designers on a project - static exhibits give a false impression of peace and harmony. The other is the difficult of introducing a historical perspective on events that are still so fresh and recent.

This is where the catalogue for this exhibition comes into its own - Frei Otto: Complete Works (Birkhauser, .73); an astonishingly weighty but creative production in which eulogy is interwoven with detailed assessment. The editor, Winfried Nerdinger, contributes an introduction presenting Otto's lightweight structures - simple, adaptable and modest - as a reaction against the monumental formalism of the Third Reich, an attempt to create a new spirit in German architecture.

Ironically, the exhibition is taking place only yards from the Führer's one-time headquarters, so this historical slant is an acknowledgement of yet another aspect of Munich's architectural past.

Robert Thorne is a historian with Alan Baxter & Associates

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