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Remembering Frei Otto

Features | April 1, 2015 | By:

A giant of the tensile structure industry and influential master architect leaves a legacy.

By Bruce N. Wright, AIA

Upon learning that he had been awarded the Pritzker Prize, Frei Otto recently 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.”

Otto died several weeks later, on March 9, 2015, and will be posthumously awarded the prize on May 16. “His loss will be felt wherever the art of architecture is practiced the world over,” said Lord Peter Palumbo, chair of the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, “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.”

Frei Otto, circa 2000. Ingenhoven Architects, Düsseldorf
Frei Otto, circa 2000. Ingenhoven Architects, Düsseldorf

Fabric Architecture magazine approached a few longtime contributors that had a personal connection to Otto for their thoughts on the great architect’s influence in their own work and upon architecture and the world.

G. Goetz Schirele, FAIA, PhD, professor at USC School of Architecture and founding director of USC’s Master of Building Science Program: “I still remember a recent five-hour lunch with Frei Otto. Since we first met in 1964, Otto pioneered a new paradigm of sustainable architecture, initiating a world-wide industry of energy-saving fabric structures.”

Denis Hector, RA, LEED® AP, associate dean School of Architecture, University of Miami, Fla.: “Frei was a teacher and mentor of enormous generosity. He will be missed by the generations of students and collaborators who learned so much through working with him. The families of extraordinary structural forms that Frei Otto discovered and generated are now the signature of avant garde architecture. The formalism of the present day digital splines and nurbs springs from the reciprocal relationship of form and force to which Otto devoted his career. He perceived structural forms as a priori, preexisting in the very nature of the resolution of forces acting within a system. The forces that the rest of us represent with arrows were alive to Frei. He visualized vectors flowing within and animating structure, a dynamic duality of form and force.”

Nicholas Goldsmith, FAIA, LEED AP, senior principal of FTL Design Engineering Studio: “I worked for Frei first at his Institute (IL) in the Pfaffenwald [editor’s note: a campus of University-Stuttgart, southern Germany] proofreading texts in English, but after a month or so I think Frei could see that I really wanted to be involved with the design process and he asked if I would work with him on a tent project celebrating the start of the BP oil rigs in Scotland, which had to be ready for fabrication in about six weeks. Naturally I jumped at the opportunity and moved to his Atelier Warmbronn in the Black Forest where I parked myself for the next two and a half years.

Most of my time in the Atelier was working on physical modeling. To Frei, the physical modeling process was the ultimate design tool as it predated digital modeling. We built soap film models, hanging chain models, tensile fabric models made of stretch fabrics and some without stretch that we patterned. We made inflatable forms, cable nets and deployable models, all as a design tool and not as a visualization of a finished design. Working in this process was an extraordinary lesson because each modeling technology was reflective of the structural intelligence of different technologies: the soap film minimal surface for tensile membranes, the hanging chain for compressive arch and shell structures. This was the essence of form-finding.

The actual modeling techniques we used [in the Atelier] had been developed by Frei. Granted, he was absorbing techniques from the masters that went before, such as Gaudi, but he modified them for his own use and special vision. These techniques still stand today. If you are developing a membrane structure, cutting up pantyhose and pre-stretching it on a wooden frame and then applying it over your columns, valley and ridge cables; it is still an invaluable tool.

As we move more into the digital world of design, many of these techniques are now replicated with form-finding programs that can both optimize shapes and analyze them too, but Frei’s work was a necessary bridge to get from there to here. And as important, inherent in the physical modeling process, is a longer concentration on the form, scale and proportion that cannot be duplicated with boundary wireframe and surface modeling [software]. Hours go by and days go by and slowly the structure unfolds, whereas with digital modeling within minutes complex forms can be derived. The different scale of time involved I think is noticeable in the end result and one of the reasons why Frei was such a master.”

Gisela Stromeyer, designer/creative director of Stromeyer Design: “Frei Otto would never cut corners, he made them round! It was not an accident that Frei Otto and my father, Peter Stromeyer, met; it seems when something new and ingenious is in the making it pulls together the ingredients for its creation.

I very much remember as a child and later on, in my adult life, visits of the Frei Otto family to our house in Constance, Germany. It was always a very happy time together with a lot of inventive and exciting flare; it left me with a feeling that something great is in the making, and it was.

It goes without saying that working with a genius is not easy! And, that there are plenty of challenges and difficulties to overcome, especially if something is being built that has not been in this form.

It was serious at times and the challenges and risks plenty, but my father loved that time of creation with Frei Otto, and many years later he would talk about it with great appreciation. And the best thing about it, so did Frei Otto.

Frei Otto’s genius and my father’s groundedness in the making of tents, his business sense, his willingness to take risks, and hold hands when necessary, made both of them good partners.

Frei Otto was an amazing, inspiring person; he had such a strong spirit of discovery, a capacity to think differently and to look at ordinary things for inspiration and guidance in how to create something extraordinary. Like glue, just to give an example. He started to make models of glue! Studying how it pulls apart, studying the shape. All of his work has something very poetic.

I remember working in Frei Otto’s Atelier in Warmbronn, Germany, and being in awe of all the different materials, models, ideas, creations, explorations that I saw. It was a feast for my eyes and changed my way of how I perceived of my surroundings, as something that has the potential to be extraordinary.

For many years I visited the Frei Otto family and we would have tea and coffee, many different cakes to taste, and it was always a very heartfelt get-together with good conversations.

And so I went to visit Frei and his family before he left the planet, and I felt so grateful for his being and creations. He was very appreciative of his life and of my creative spirit. All I can say is, thank you for your friendship and inspiration.

Bruce N. Wright, AIA, a licensed architect, is a media consultant to architects, engineers and designers, and writes frequently about fabric-based design.

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