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Pritzker Prize recognises ‘visionary architect’ Frei Otto

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The 2015 Pritzker Prize has been awarded to ‘lightweight structure pioneer’ Frei Otto - the day after the architect died

The Pritzker Architecture Prize brought forward its planned award announcement, which was due to be made in two weeks time, after it emerged that the 89-year-old German had died on Monday (9 March).

Otto pioneered the use of modern lightweight tent-like structures and practiced, according to the prize jury, practices ‘a holistic and collaborative approach to architecture, working with environmentalists, biologists, engineers, philosophers, historians, naturalists, artists, and other architects’.

The German architect is best-known for his stadium roofs in Munich’s Olympic Park and for the German Pavilion at the 1967 Expo.

He had already been recognised with the RIBA Gold Medal in 2005 and in 2006 won the Praemium Imperiale for architecture.

Otto had been told that he was being handed the prize when Pritzker director Martha Thorne visited his Stuttgart home before his death. On receiving the news, he said: ‘I am now so happy to receive this Pritzker Prize and I thank the jury and the Pritzker family very much. I have never done anything to gain this prize. My architectural drive was to design new types of buildings to help poor people especially following natural disasters and catastrophes. So what shall be better for me than to win this prize? I will use whatever time is left to me to keep doing what I have been doing, which is to help humanity. You have here a happy man.’

Tom Pritzker, chairman and president of The Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the prize, said: ‘Our jury was clear that, in their view, Frei Otto’s career is a model for generations of architects and his influence will continue to be felt. The news of his passing is very sad, unprecedented in the history of the prize. We are grateful that the jury awarded him the prize while he was alive. Fortunately, after the jury decision, representatives of the prize traveled to Mr. Otto’s home and were able to meet with Mr. Otto to share the news with him.’

Speaking after hearing of Otto’s death, chair of the jury Peter Palumbo, added: ‘Time waits for no man. If anyone doubts this aphorism, the death yesterday of Frei Otto, a titan of modern architecture, a few weeks short of his 90th birthday, and a few short weeks before his receipt of the Pritzker Architecture Prize in Miami in May, represents a sad and striking example of this truism.

‘His loss will be felt wherever the art of architecture is practiced the world over, for he was a universal citizen; whilst his influence will continue to gather momentum by those who are aware of it, and equally, by those who are not.

‘Frei stands for freedom, as free and as liberating as a bird in flight, swooping and soaring in elegant and joyful arcs, unrestrained by the dogma of the past, and as compelling in its economy of line and in the improbability of its engineering as it is possible to imagine, giving the marriage of form and function the invisibility of the air we breathe, and the beauty we see in nature.’

Otto is the fortieth recipient of the Pritzker Prize, which is regarded as architecture’s highest honour and usually goes to a living architect.

The committee said it was the first time that a winner had died before the announcement was made.

Otto will be celebrated at the prize’s award ceremony on 15 May at the Frank Gehry-designed New World Centre in Miami, where other Pritzker Laureates will speak about his life and work. 

Last year, the prize went to Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, and other past recipients have included Norman Foster, Oscar Niemeyer, Zaha Hadid and Peter Zumthor.

Jury citation

Frei Otto, born almost 90 years ago in Germany, has spent his long career researching, experimenting, and developing a most sensitive architecture that has influenced countless others throughout the world.

The lessons of his pioneering work in the field of lightweight structures that are adaptable, changeable and carefully use limited resources are as relevant today as when they were first proposed over 60 years ago.

He has embraced a definition of architect to include researcher, inventor, formfinder, engineer, builder, teacher, collaborator, environmentalist, humanist, and creator of memorable buildings and spaces. He first became known for his tent structures used as temporary exhibition pavilions.

The constructions at the German Federal Garden exhibitions and other festivals of the 1950s were functional, beautiful, ‘floating’ roofs that seemed to effortlessly provide shelter, and then were easily dissembled after the events. The cable net structure employed for the German Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, prefabricated in Germany and assembled on site in a short period of time, was a highlight of the exhibition for its grace and originality. The impressive large-scale roofs designed for the Munich Olympics of 1972, combining lightness and strength, were a building challenge that many said could not be achieved. The architectural landscape for stadium, pool and public spaces, a result of the efforts of a large team, is still impressive today.

Taking inspiration from nature and the processes found there, he sought ways to use the least amount of materials and energy to enclose spaces.

He practiced and advanced ideas of sustainability, even before the word was coined. He was inspired by natural phenomena – from birds’ skulls to soap bubbles and spiders’ webs.

He spoke of the need to understand the ‘physical, biological and technical processes which give rise to objects.’

Branching concepts from the 1960s optimized structures to support large flat roofs. A grid shell, such as seen in the Mannheim Multihalle of 1974, shows how a simple structural solution, easy to assemble, can create a most striking, flexible space. The Mechtenberg footbridges, with the use of humble slender rods and connecting nodes, but with advanced knowledge, produce an attractive filigree pattern and span distances up to 30 meters.

Otto’s constructions are in harmony with nature and always seek to do more with less.

Virtually all the works that are associated with Frei Otto have been designed in collaboration with other professionals. He was often approached to form part of a team to tackle complex architectural and structural challenges. The inventive results attest to outstanding collective efforts of multidisciplinary teams.

Throughout his life, Frei Otto has produced imaginative, fresh, unprecedented spaces and constructions. He has also created knowledge. Herein resides his deep influence: not in forms to be copied, but through the paths that have been opened by his research and discoveries.

His contributions to the field of architecture are not only skilled and talented, but also generous. For his visionary ideas, inquiring mind, belief in freely sharing knowledge and inventions, his collaborative spirit and concern for the careful use of resources, the 2015 Pritzker Architecture Prize is awarded to Frei Otto.

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