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Obituary: Frei Otto (1925 – 2015)

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German-born architect Frei Otto has died, aged 89, just weeks before he was due to receive the 2015 Pritzker Prize

‘Visionary architect’ and ‘titan of modern architecture’ Otto was recognised by the Prize jury for his pioneering roof structures and collaborative ways of working.

The German architect is best-known for his lightweight stadium roofs in Munich’s Olympic Park and for the German Pavilion at the 1967 Expo in Montreal, Canada and the Japan Pavilion at the 2000 Expo in Hannover which he worked on with 2014 Pritzker Laureate Shigeru Ban.

Born in Siegmar, Germany in 1925, Otto grew up in Berlin. He signed up to study architecture in 1943, but instead was called for military service and trained as a pilot.

In 1944, he became a foot soldier and less than a year later was captured near Nürnberg and became a prisoner of war. He was held in a prisoner of war camp near Chartres in France for two years before being released.

It was in the prisoner of war camp that Otto’s architectural career began. He worked as a camp architect and learned to build structures from as little material as possible.

After the war in 1948, Otto went to study architecture at the Technical University of Berlin, and later also received a PhD in civil engineering from the institute. 

Otto’s work was a direct contrast to the architecture of Berlin’s Third Reich. He designed buildings which were lightweight, open, democratic, and low cost.

In 1952, Otto became a freelance architect and founded his own architectural office in Berlin.

Three years later, he designed and built three lightweight temporary structures in collaboration with the tentmaker Peter Stromeyer for the Bundesgartenschau in Kassel, Germany. These cotton structures became his first works to win international recognition.

Otto founded a number of institutions dedicated to modern, lightweight structures and taught at various universities including Yale, Harvard, and Berkeley.

The Institute for Lightweight Structures, which he founded in Stuttgart, was chosen by the German government to carry out research for the planning of the German Pavilion for the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal, Canada. Otto’s designs went on to be chosen to represent the country and this was the moment he made his major breakthrough as an architect. His pavilion for the Expo 67 is recognised as an early example of large scale, lightweight, passive solar building.

On the back of this success at Expo 67, Otto was commissioned to develop the roof of the main sports stadium in the Munich Olympic Park. The scheme, which has become one of his best known works, features a large membrane to cover the stands of the stadium, a tensile structure arena, a fabric roof over the Olympic swimming pool, and hyperbolic membrane canopies to connect the buildings and protect visitors from rain and sun.

Otto went on to establish the Atelier (Frei Otto) Warmbronn architectural studio near Stuttgart, where he focused on collaborating with other architects and engineers.

From 1975 to 1980 Otto worked with Rolf Gutbrod and Ted Happold to build a tent-like gymnasium for the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and he also co-designed the Japanese pavilion at the 2000 Hannover Expo with architect Shigeru Ban.

He was an Honorary Fellow of both the RIBA and the Institute of Structural Engineers, and  in addition to the Pritzker Prize, the German architect also won the RIBA Gold Medal in 2005, the 1980 and 1998 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and the Praemium Imperiale in 2006.

Otto died at his home in Stuttgart on Monday (9 March). 

Tributes

Michael Hopkins, founding partner, Hopkins Architects
‘For me, through Ted Happold and Michael Dixon as parents, Frei Otto was the grandfather of all our membrane structures, both in inspiration and technology. We owe him a great debt.’

Peter Clegg, senior partner, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
‘He was one of the great revolutionary architect-engineers of the last century. Richard [Feilden] and I cycled to Munich just to see the Olympic structures he designed: It was worth it!’

Stefan Behnisch, Behnisch Architekten
‘Along with my partners at Behnisch Architekten, I congratulate Frei Otto on winning the 2015 Pritzker Prize and honor his lasting legacy. Otto merits this prize for his visionary ideas, his innovative and unique structures, and his willingness to freely share his inventions and research conducted at his Institute for Lightweight Structures with other architects and engineers. He always helped his colleagues to implement their design concepts and supported them with a true collegial spirit.

‘In particular, in view of the great architectural legacy of the Olympic Park in Munich built for the Games in 1972, I thank Otto for his cooperation and commitment that enabled my father, Günter Behnisch, and his partners at Behnisch & Partner to implement the tented roof design of the Olympic buildings.

‘With his knowledge and creativity, Frei Otto worked closely with architect Behnisch & Partner, engineer Leonhardt und Andrä, and the clients, as well as numerous other parties. Together, they brought the roof structure proposed in the competition entry to reality, even though the feasibility of the design had long been doubted. Without Otto’s advice and expertise, the project would not have been realized.

‘The Behnisch Architekten team deeply admires Otto for many things, especially his influence as a teacher, mentor, and advisor to generations of architects and engineers. We also honor him for the great body of research he built at the Institute for Lightweight Structures that will benefit architects and engineers for years to come.

‘We owe a profound debt of gratitude to Frei Otto, and respect him for his lifelong achievements.’

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