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Frei Otto, Master of Tensile Structures, Dies Day Before Winning Pritzker Prize

Frei Otto, 2000  Photo © Ingenhoven und Partner Architekten, Düsseldorf
Frei Otto in 2000 (photo © Ingenhoven und Partner Architekten, Düsseldorf ;All images courtesy Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn)

The influential German architect Frei Otto died Monday, one day before it was announced that he would be receiving the 2015 Pritzker Prize.

Thankfully, Otto knew about the award before he passed. When the Pritzker committee told the 89-year-old architect of his selection in January, he humbly commented that he had done nothing important enough to receive the honor.

“My architectural drive was to design new types of buildings to help poor people, especially following natural disasters and catastrophes,” he said. “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.”

Having been a POW during World War II, the architect recognized the need for better transitional shelters during and in the aftermath of conflicts. After he was released, he designed temporary social housing in Germany that has survived to achieve the status of listed, protected monuments. After WWII, he took advantage of the shortage of construction materials to pioneer lightweight, tent-like structures that contrasted sharply with the monstrous buildings of the Third Reich. A visit to the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1952 inspired Otto’s experiments with cables, tension, and membranes — hallmarks of his practice that led to his founding of the Institute for Lightweight Structures at the College of Technology in Stuttgart in 1964.

The 1967 International and Universal Exposition or Expo 67, 1967, Montreal, Canada  Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn
The 1967 International and Universal Exposition or Expo 67, 1967, Montreal, Canada (photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn)

Despite his purported humanitarian focus, Otto was mostly known for the temporary structures he created for biennales, expositions, and other special events. In 1967 he designed West Germany’s World Expo Pavilion, a tensile web of transparent acrylic glass inspired by the ordinary soap bubble. He built on that concept in 1972, when he designed the massive, suspended canopy for the 1972 Munich Olympics’ main stadium. Unfortunately, he failed to find an easy way to mass produce his designs. As New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in 1971, as quoted in the paper’s Otto obituary, the simplicity of his buildings’ forms was “complex beyond belief.”

That didn’t stifle Otto’s ideals. That same decade, he dreamed up a two-kilometer-wide dome that could comfortably house 40,000 people in a utopian “Arctic City.” Unsurprisingly, it was never built. Much later, in 2005, he told Icon Magazine, “My generation had a big task after the war … Today, 60 years [later], we can’t be proud of what we have done. But we tried; we tried to go a new way.”

But even though Otto never fulfilled his most ambitious goals, he was still a visionary who had a direct influence on many contemporary architects. His acolytes include 2014 Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban, the architect with whom he worked on the Japanese Pavilion for Expo 2000 in Germany and who has dedicated much of his career to creating the same type of transitional shelters that Otto realized was needed. At at time when natural disasters and wars have left more than 50 million people around the world displaced, that foresight seems especially prescient.

“Frei Otto was a utopian who never stopped believing that architecture can make a better world for all,” the Pritzker Committee wrote in a statement. “[His] career is a model for generations of architects and his influence will continue to be felt.”

Roofing for main sports facilities in the Munich Olympic Park for the 1972 Summer Olympics, 1968–1972, Munich, Germany  Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn
Roofing for main sports facilities in the Munich Olympic Park for the 1972 Summer Olympics, 1968–72, Munich, Germany (photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn)
Roofing for main sports facilities in the Munich Olympic Park for the 1972 Summer Olympics, 1968–1972, Munich, Germany  Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn
Roofing for main sports facilities in the Munich Olympic Park for the 1972 Summer Olympics, 1968–72, Munich, Germany (photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn)
“City in the Arctic” model, Unbuilt  Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn
“City in the Arctic” model, unbuilt (photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn)
Japan Pavilion, Expo 2000 Hannover, 2000, Hannover, Germany  Photo by Hiroyuki Hirai
Japan Pavilion, Expo 2000 Hannover, 2000, Hannover, Germany (photo by Hiroyuki Hirai)
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