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Pioneering the field: The founding father of the fabric tension structure industry

Features | July 1, 2008 | By:

Frei Otto is considered by many to be the founding father of the existing fabric tension structure industry.

Many in the fabric tensile structure industry agree with such estimation. In lectures or discussions about the history of this relatively new industry, Otto’s name invariably is spoken. By some he is considered an architect, by others an engineer, by others an architectural engineer.

“I think it’s unimportant how I am named,” Otto says. “I trained as an architect, but I was researching in the faculty of engineering, and I made my doctor’s thesis in the field of engineering. But normally I feel I am just an architect.”

What is more important than his title is the influence his work has had throughout Europe, the Middle East, the United States, the world. Those who have had opportunity to work with him speak proudly and reverently of the experience.

Nicholas Goldsmith, FAIA, senior principal of FTL Design Engineering Studio, New York City, worked with Frei Otto and taught at the university in Stuttgart from 1975 to 1977. “I don’t think anybody would be doing what we’re doing today in this field if it weren’t for him” Goldsmith asserts.

Otto himself is not as expansive in his description of his impact on modern architecture. “Yes, of course, everybody knows that there was a big impact,” he says. “Hundreds of buildings now in the world have been influenced by this work. And especially [the knowledge] that tents have a very long lifetime, and that they can be built not only from textile materials but also from steel, even from wood, with low energy materials. Those influences are very broad; we can’t give direct examples.”

Larry Medlin, professor and dean of the architecture school at the University of Arizona, Tucson, is one who has felt the influence of this man. Medlin met him in 1962 when Otto was a guest lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley. During his visit there, Otto invited Medlin to work for him in Germany. After graduate school, Medlin taught at the University of Miami for a year, then planned to spend the summer working for Otto. He went to Germany—and stayed there four years.

Otto had recently founded the Development Center for Lightweight Construction in Berlin. “At that time, the staff consisted of Otto, one German member, and one visiting member, which was me,” Medlin recalls.

In 1964, Otto was made director of the Institut für Leichte Flächentragwerke (Institute of Lightweight Structures)1 at Stuttgart Technical University. Otto’s renown began with the German Pavilion for Montreal Expo ’67. In the mid-1960s, Germany wasn’t doing much heavy manufacturing but wanted to show off the nation’s industrial and engineering expertise and technology, Medlin remembers. Otto’s design for the unusual lightweight structure was chosen in a competition.

The Institute staff, along with Otto’s friend Rolf Gutbrod, initially worked on a test structure, which had to be built, then approved by the German National Building Authority. The test structure was later converted to a permanent structure at the Institute. The completed building was fabricated by the Peter Strohmeyer firm, who also fabricated many of Otto’s later structures.

Stadiums for the Munich Olympics in 1972 were another major project and went through a similar process of researching, testing, and approval. Gutbrod again worked with Otto, as did Günther Behnisch und Partner, who erected the buildings. The project consisted of a membrane-roofed large stadium, a small tensile structure arena, a fabric roof over the Olympic swimming pool, and hyperbolic membrane canopies that connected the buildings and sheltered pedestrians.

Comments about the project include, “undoubtedly the most spectacular events in postwar German architecture up to now” and “some of Otto’s most dynamic structures.”2

Otto’s interest in lightweight structures began long before work on these projects. In fact, some authors suggest that flying glider planes as a young man taught him “the effect of aerodynamic forces on thin membranes stretched over light frames.”3

“This may be, but it’s not the real reason,” Otto says. “It’s just from my studies of material-less structures and suspension structures of the lightest [type].” How he became interested in fabric tensile structures, “is a long story,” he says. “Since I wrote my doctor’s thesis on hanging roofs, I was interested in tensile structures. I wrote my doctor’s thesis in 1953. But my interest goes back to 1951 or 1952.”

At that time he was studying at the Technical University of Berlin. After receiving his diploma in 1952, he opened an office in 1952 and has worked as a consultant since 1972.

What is it about fabric structures that fascinate him? “They have two complete different aspects,” Otto explains. “One is they’re using a material in a very economic way. On the other side, they have an ability to have a self-designing quality. And you can use them for all different floor plans and height elevations.

“You must allow that these structures are forming themselves. It’s too easy to make it wrong. Of course, it is difficult to do this, to let these nets and fabrics and tension structures, two- and three-dimensionally do [what they will] but to study what they want to do.”

Although Otto pioneered the industry, he isn’t just a fabric tensile structure architect. He has worked with many materials and building systems, including grid shells, bamboo, and wood lattice. He also is credited with substantial contributions to pneumatic theory and the development of convertible roofs.

Often, his work is said to have a “natural” quality, resembling a spider’s web or a shell. But Otto says he does not look to nature for architectural design ideas. After an initial 15 years of funding by the German government, however, the Institute for Lightweight Structures took a decided turn from design research to pure scientific research of nature. The Institute’s research involved such disciplines as philosophy, history, biology, physics, engineering, and architecture.

“It’s always a misunderstanding that we are trying to imitate nature,” he says. “Man never can succeed to imitate nature. What we are interested in is to understand nature because in nature are many of similar processes of self-making forms and structures we know. So it’s a process that’s much more complicated than people think.

“We are developing structures…of the lowest energy input and material input, and sometimes it happens that these structures we can rediscover in living nature and nonliving nature. We are not studying nature to use it for architecture. We are researching on structure to understand nature.”

Perhaps the greatest indication of Otto’s contribution is the recurrence in this decade of his ideas and philosophy of architecture, nature, and building.

“The philosophy has been what I have really pursued,” Medlin explains. “Otto developed a philosophy that inspired and was followed by a technology. It’s looking at the overall situation of how you build within an environment, a considered and thoughtfully planned, not imposing, but integrated architecture, using natural energy and ecosystems.”

For example, the German pavilion at Montreal was a passive solar building. It was not widely understood at the time, but the knowledge and social attitude caught up to it shortly afterward, Medlin says. “Over time, society has cycled back to these same ideas of energy-consciousness.”

Editor’s note: Although this article originally ran in Fabric Architecture in the May/June 1991 issue, in light of this issue’s focus on education and educators, we thought it made sense to revisit this interview to provide some background to those educators featured today. Of particular note is Frei Otto’s emphasis (more than 17 years ago!) on tensile structures’ inherent sustainability and low energy use.


1 Now called the Institut für Leichtbau Entwerfen und Konstruieren [ILEK]

2 George Barford, Understanding Modern Architecture (Worcester, Mass.: Davis Publications, Inc., 1986), 105–7.

3 Ibid.

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