Frei Otto was a German architect who paved the way for architects and engineers and revolutionized tensile structures. Growing up, he spent a lot of time building model planes. When he got drafted to join the military as a pilot, he got to see the city from above and experience the destruction from an aerial perspective, of which, generations of architecture were destroyed in a mere instant.
Towards the end of the second World War, he got imprisoned at a war camp, where he started feeling the need to build inexpensive temporary shelters, which resulted in him making tents.
Before pursuing his studies in architecture, Frei Otto met an architect and structural engineer that inspired him to study tensile structures. Living through Hitler’s reign, everything around him was built with weight and density and as a young architect, he knew he wanted to bring a fresh, novice way of thinking and approach to the built environment.
It was, however, his own experimental work with Peter Stromeyer on the making of the tent that expanded his interest. Together they developed a new material that maximized the stiffness of the fabric form through prestressed membranes using embedded cables. Frei Otto went on to use media like soap where the form self-organizes and emerges out of a physical process. Which in return taught him how to create the maximum enclosure with a minimum of material, leading to more robust stretch of fabric models. From the late 1960 onward, Frei Otto was recognized as the young tent builder to have an eye on.
Frei Otto also looked towards nature to find national forces that have essentialism to them due to his interest in biology and understanding of the role of humans in creating architecture and the environment which are evident in all his works.
Frei Otto’s works
Frei Otto’s major breakthrough came in 1967, when his first real experiment with tensile structure was for his design of the cable net tent at the German pavilion in Montréal’s Expo of 1967. At a time when computer methods were still not common, he completed the design by making a large-scale “measuring model”, used to define the cable lengths and measure the tensions in the cables under load. The modeling method defined the construction system as well as the actual geometry.
The Institute, still standing today at Stuttgart University, known as Otto’s research center, was originally a trial structure built for the Montreal tent. It was made of a lightweight tensile structure by his students and colleagues implementing Otto’s philosophy of experimentation. This lightweight structure continues to investigate natural forms as well as lightweight structures till this day.
Frei Otto, a pioneer in large-scale tensile structures, crossed borders from pure engineering to a design engineering approach offering structural stability; where the thinking approach of building form and structure became unified and not separated.
“To build means to make architecture real on the border of knowledge”, – Frei Otto
Frei Otto’s 22m high aviary at Hellabrunn Zoo spans an area of 5000 sq. m. and follows his philosophy of using nature. This zoo was designed in dialogue with nature taking into consideration the need for animals to feel free and the openness the people visiting would feel. By completely embracing the function of the building and advancing his technique, he created a stainless-steel mesh canopy that was innovative, thin, and breathable, done with complete intricacy and delicacy. He was awarded the Bavarian BDA Architecture Prize by the Federation of German Architects for creating this specific tensile structure with an organic variation, and a light footprint; making nature work in symbiosis with architecture. This project is one for the books.
One of the projects Frei Otto worked on in collaboration with architect Günter Behnisch, was the Munich Olympic Park which left a big impression. Frei Otto created a transparent tensile roof structure covering the entire stadium which featured some lifted multiple peaks acting as a reflection of the mountains of the Alps.
Frei Otto may be an architect who designed a few major buildings but his contribution to architecture, engineering, and education at a time when computer programs weren’t available set a high tone and standard for young architects, allowing and inspiring a complete exploration of form.
“I have built little, but I have built many castles in the air”, – Frei Otto
Frei Otto won Britain’s Royal Gold Medal for architecture in 2005 and began being the inspiration for all roofs that were built in pavilions, exhibition halls, and stadiums. He passed away at the age of 89 before he was named the recipient of The Pritzker Prize, the most prestigious award in architecture. Frei Otto’s research paradigm and new thinking approach created a shift of perspective that sparked a new way of thinking for an entire generation of architects and engineers.
- www.youtube.com. (n.d.). FREI OTTO: SPANNING THE FUTURE. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5hKnOyg43k&t=1s [Accessed 29 May 2022].