His lightweight roof constructions made him famous to the general public. Architects wanted to value his life achievements by honoring him with the 2015 Pritzker Prize, which the visionary architect received on March 23, 14 days after he passed away in his native Germany.
Frei Otto was influential to architects and architecture students globally, but his work resonated in Central Europe beyond the time frames of the historical eras of modernism, postmodernism, deconstructivism, and more recent disciplinary schools of thought. His work at the Institut für Leichtbau and its I.L. publications operated as reference manuals for rigorous investigations. Many of his investigations into physical phenomena still find their way into computational design today. The rigor in the work lead to precise descriptions, structured in the tradition of science reporting that demands the reproducibility of an experiment. This means Otto’s work was not a style reference, but a science reference for designers much like the work of his friend Buckminster Fuller.
In 1964, he established his Institut für Leichtbau, literally translated as institute for light construction, or light building. The name was carefully considered. Light here meant lightweight, efficient, but also carries the notion of effortlessness and elegance. The name encompassed many of Otto’s concerns in a single term that is used to mean “small carbon footprint” today. “Everything man is doing in architecture is to try to go against nature,” said Otto in a 2005 interview. “Of course we have to understand nature to know how far we have to go against nature. The secret, I think, of the future is not doing too much. All architects have the tendency to do too much.”
My personal experience with Frei Otto as a student in the early 1990s in Vienna consisted of a legendary lecture he gave at the Technical University. The largest auditorium of the school was equipped with a pair of Kodak slide projectors that could handle regular and maxi carousels, meaning 80 or 100 slides in one cartridge. The room filled with more than 600 students and instructors, and once the slide operator showed up with stacks of 24 maxi carousels for each projector everyone stopped talking. Otto started his lecture, or rather lectures, with, “I don’t like to only talk about my work, instead I prefer to give a lecture on a specific topic.” He remembered that Vienna was in an earthquake zone and thought it may be appropriate to talk about friction based self-adjusting masonry structures for such areas. Earthquakes need to be understood in their very local contexts as the trembles that sporadically occur are relatively insignificant, but for Otto, the local context of Vienna meant a natural condition for which architecture has a solution. After a fascinating lecture that lasted two hours, he asked for a carousel switch and said, “This slide shows my masters degree thesis.” At that point we all understood that he would celebrate his achievements over many decades and most of the audience endured a three-hour-long presentation of work that gradually introduced more and more color slides. The experience was very inspiring and certainly memorable.
Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn; Frei Otto
A second more indirect encounter with Otto consisted of working on Heinz Isler’s archive, when I worked at the ETH in Zurich to help with the acquisition of the estate. Opposite of Isler’s own desk was a scale model of the Munich Olympic Stadium. Günter Behnisch and Otto are typically remembered as the team that designed the Munich Olympic Stadium, but the original team that won the competition was a collaboration between Isler and Behnisch. Otto joined the team when the Bavarian government confronted the competition winners with doubts as to whether they would be able to complete the project in time. Otto had gained such respect as an expert in form finding of hanging structures that he was asked to join the team. He did and the collaboration produced a project that remains as one of the most important buildings of the 20th century.