The transformation of tensile architecture.
By Mark Zeh
It’s probably a search for neatness, or some sort of clarity, that leads humans to search for “the“ definitive inventor or designer of any given thing. This kind of search for simple attribution is embedded in the historical narrative of every culture. For instance, every American is taught that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in the U.S. in 1876. But perhaps the inventor was Johann Phillipp Reis, in Germany in 1861—or Antonio Meucci in 18601—or was it even someone else, in yet another country?
And what about the assistants, helpers and development partners of these named inventors or designers? Were they all insight-free “doers,” were they contributing collaborators, or did they actually come up with the key insights while the studio head was away on a business development trip or something?
The first instantiation of any technology or design emerges somewhere at some point in time, but knowing who managed to take attribution for that invention or new design is not nearly as interesting as understanding where the underlying ideas came from, how they were combined and how they were transformed into reality.
We know that ideas and inventions arise as a result of flows of information and technology. Ideas are always built up from earlier thinking and are the result of collaboration between people possessing different knowledge and talents, applicable to enable something to come to be. For instance, the age-old idea of sending people into space was not useful for anything other than inspiration and storytelling until centuries of different types of innovation and technological application had finally reached a key development point, enabling this to happen.
Within this framework, it’s interesting to examine the roots of membrane and tensile architecture, along with a key collaboration that sped its development.
In 1950, Frei Otto, an architecture student at the Technical University of Berlin (TU-Berlin), was awarded a stipend by the German National Academic Foundation for a semester of study at the University of Virginia. While in the U.S., he saw a model of Matthew Novicki’s2 Raleigh Arena (later J.S. Dorton Arena)3 in the New York office of engineer Fred N. Severud. Upon returning to Berlin in 1951, Otto published a paper4 describing the Raleigh Arena’s “pre-stressed” cable network structure5 in good detail, including its “hängende Dach” (hanging roof) and a description of the method of fastening its planned aluminum-coated neoprene membrane cover to the cable network.
The publication of this paper apparently inspired Hans Stettbacher, a Swiss architect from St. Gallen, to copy the roof form at a smaller scale in his design for the Swiss Pavilion at the 1952 Berlin Industrial Trade Fair. Rather than using a single layer of high-tech fabric proposed for the Raleigh arena roof, a double layer of cotton fabric was installed in the pavilion. The second, inner layer of fabric was used because Stettbacher did not like the way the exposed steel cable net looked. Critically, tentmaking firm L. Stromeyer & Co, of Konstanz, Germany, was the fabricator of the roof of this novel, futuristic building.6
According to Otto’s recounting: In the fall of 1952, after he had received his diploma from TU-Berlin, he was awarded a 10-month grant by the German National Academic Foundation to continue his study of lightweight tent structures, with the stipulation that he deliver his doctoral dissertation at the end of this time (“Das hängende Dach” [The Suspended Roof”]). While conducting research for this book, Otto contacted four tent manufacturers to learn more about making tents. One of them answered—L. Stromeyer & Co. Peter Stromeyer, the young principal of the large tentmaking division of this company (perhaps the largest tentmaking concern in the world at the time) was curious about Otto’s doctoral thesis and work, so he invited Otto to Konstanz, at his own expense, to learn more about the work. After a period of friendly correspondence, Otto finally went to Stromeyersdorf, in Konstanz, and spent a week there learning about tentmaking and working with Stromeyer’s craftspeople.7 This was the beginning of an extraordinary collaboration that lasted into the early 1970s.
From today’s perspective, it seems likely that Stromeyer’s experience fabricating the novel fabric roofing concept for Stettbacher’s 1952 Swiss Pavilion and whatever he had learned about the Raleigh Arena plans and Otto’s paper, during that activity, probably whetted his interest.
Gisela Stromeyer, daughter of Peter Stromeyer, says, “I think that the original invitation to Otto and the collaborations that followed happened since my father was curious about what Frei Otto was thinking and was just very open to new possibilities.”
Joachim Schilling, who worked with Frei Otto at the original Institut für leichte Flächentragwerke (Institute for Lightweight Structures) at the University of Stuttgart during the planning and construction of the German Pavilion at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition (Expo 67) in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and later at L. Stromeyer & Co. GmbH, told me about Peter Stromeyer.
“He had a background in mechanical engineering, but confessed himself to not knowing anything about the tentmaking business,” Schilling says. “At the time the Stromeyer company was quite large and the tentmaking part was just one of three divisions. Peter Stromeyer was in charge of developing the tentmaking and architectural division.”
The outputs of this collaboration are well documented, but the actual work processes and interactions between the parties are less so.
In his writings, Otto describes his work with Stromeyer during their first week together in Konstanz in 1953 as “the most productive working weeks in his entire life.”8 Otto goes on to describe a personal interaction with Stromeyer, starting with them agreeing that in order to understand how to work with membranes, they had to begin with “the simplest” possible forms. He describes their process of discovery by doing, where the saddlemakers, carpenters and other craftspeople at Stromeyer would quickly fabricate prototypes of the ideas created by Otto and Stromeyer.
I asked Schilling how this collaboration process had evolved by the time the Expo 67 structure was being built. By that time, Otto and Stromeyer had created many landmark structures together and had come a long way in transforming tensile and membrane architecture from a tentmaker’s craft into an architectural and engineering discipline.
“The German Pavilion design and engineering work was being done by a very-international team at [the Institute] in Stuttgart. I led the work in formfinding, model building, wind tunnel work and pattern making,” explains Schilling. “We had a team onsite in Stromeyersdorf to work out the actual detailing and manufacturing of the structures. The team was living on-site there for the project.
“The mood of that work and interactions was very casual. The entire project was worked on in an interdisciplinary way, which included manufacturing partners, suppliers, architects, structural engineers, students from [the Institute], craftspeople from Stromeyer and so on,” says Schilling. ”These projects involved solving every problem in close collaboration since this was the predigital age—there wasn’t any CAD and the engineering wasn’t understood yet. We had to constantly invent ways to realize our designs.”
Unfortunately, the story of the L. Stromeyer & Co. GmbH does not have a happy ending. Because of the economic conditions in the textile trade in the early 1970s, the company was forced into bankruptcy (one of its divisions wove commercial fabrics). The result was one of the most complicated bankruptcies in German legal history as the giant company was split up. An unfortunate result of the eight-year-long bankruptcy process is that much of the craftsmanship knowledge was lost, along with the company’s archives, models and documents.
Peter Stromeyer, and the craftspeople and capabilities within his tentmaking company, were the key to developing the technology of wide span, lightweight roofs. L. Stromeyer & Co. GmbH was the “knowing” and “doing” side of a collaboration that enabled Frei Otto’s curiosity and creativity to take form and develop. Peter Stromeyer also, critically, added commercial pressure to the equation, transforming the development of membrane architecture from an academic and intellectual curiosity into a commercial proposition, competing against other types of construction.
Contributing editor Mark Zeh writes regularly about design and innovation from his base in Munich, Germany. His cover story about dynamic, responsive buildings appeared in the May/June issue.
*German for “collaboration,” “cooperation.”
“Das Telefon und der Streit um eine Erfindung” (“The Telephone and the Argument about an Invention” [author’s translation]) by Matthias Maetsch, (accessed May 27, 2012)
2“Nowicki’s Other Masterpiece: The Erdahl-Cloyd Wing at NC State” by John Morris, Sept. 16 , 2011, from Goodnight Raleigh (accessed May 27, 2012)
3“Extended History of the J.S. Dorton Arena,” (accessed May 27, 2012)
Published in: Die Bautechnik, Volume 28, Issue 10, 1951, pp. 254/255—a portion of this paper can be read on the website of the German-language magazine Spektrum in a retrospective published October 1, 2001
5“Story No.4,” Frei Otto, 1976, from IL 16 Zelte Tents, edited by Berthhold Burckhardt, Frei Otto, Ilse Schmall, (Stuttgart Germany: Institut für leichte Flächentragwerke, 1976), pp. 14, 15, 103, 116, 117
7ibid, pp. 8, 115
8ibid, pp. 14, 117