Frei Otto was an awarded architect and structural engineer born in Germany in 1925. He is well known for his use of tensile and membranes in the design and construction of lightweight structures and his use of mathematics and civil engineering in their construction. He was the recipient of the Pritzker Prize in Architecture in 2015. 

Frei Otto_©Ingenhoven und Partner Architekten, Düsseldorf

“Productive research must be brave!”  

“The computer can only calculate what is already conceptually inside of it; you can only find what you look for in computers. Nevertheless, you can find what you haven’t searched for with free experimentation.”

Frei Otto in an interview with Juan María Songel in 2004.

Otto designed building with vision years before their time championing sustainability before the mass caught on, by proposing the design of structures that required the least amount of energy and materials to execute. He sought to understand the circumstances that led to the development of forms and their resulting shapes. This motivated his research into various forms such as bird skulls, soap bubbles, and spider webs, a reference of which can be seen in his designs.

Frei Otto participated in world war ll where he first caught interest in the quick fabrication of temporary structures that could be packed up or set up at a moment’s notice. This identified need spurred him into the research and experimentation of lightweight structures that are functional under adverse physical and economic constraints. This inspiration paved the way for his lifelong career in the same, which took him to different ends of the globe.  During his career, he insisted on engaging in projects that involved multi-disciplinary teams that helped contribute to his vision. 

His cache of knowledge remains a key reference point in the fields of engineering and design. His research still being as revolutionary as it was at its conception. He is often described as a form finder, seeking these forms in nature and using tensile elements to replicate and later interpret these forms into the relevant landscapes.  

Pathway to form: Frei Otto and Beyond, is an excerpt from the book 

Form- finding form- Shaping, Designing Architecture.

Experimental, Aesthetical, and ethical approaches to form in recent and post-war architecture.  By Sonja Hindebrand and Elizabeth Bergmann.

The book investigates the importance of form in architecture and all the factors that contribute to the end product placing equal importance on the process and result. Referencing the work of various architects and highlighting the work of Frei Otto in the chapter of focus. 

Genius Loci

The spirit of a place. Consulting a site to understand its capability rather than dealing with it like a passive victim. The surroundings offer insight into the direction design ought to take determined by various factors such as soil, weather, and topography; the genius loci.

The topic has been a cause for debate to justify various forms against their functions. While designing various architects fall into the temptation of iconism but who is to say what the limits of form are rather some have advocated for the consideration of pluralism. A summation of various factors including regional identity, geographical, historical, and cultural factors. As we have come to see all decisions have their set of consequences positive or negative and can rarely be anticipated. 

With the development of technology the possibilities are limitless and computers assist in the anticipation of various factors in design however the bark stops with the architect at the end of the day. Restrictions of materiality are also significantly reduced as we can test and experiment on materials pushing their capabilities.

The question that rises is therefore with the wealth of resources now at our disposal have the priorities changed? What is it now, Form or Function? And again does it have to be either why not both? Koolhaas determines that there are key components that are considered essential in the composition of a building and create certain awareness towards a building therefore determining the value of a building can be placed on a scale of comparison of functionality then aesthetic. 

The endless possibilities that exist push us to an impasse where conscious design is encouraged, so as we can trace the development of physical drawings computational design should follow similar paths. A key lesson learned from Frei Otto is the pursuit of form as a destination using the journey as a learning process. Following this route, the design is original to the site and specific context.

There is not a definite path to finding a form, it is however not accidental it is a consequence of any one decision. There is however a reference point or points that guide the direction and assists in the optimization of the final product ensuring that the result is as functional as it is beautiful. 

Adaptation, Reform, and Abandon

The key to good design is understanding the needs of the site and the client and using these factors. Understanding these motivations guides the thought process and through this pursuit, one can determine the success of the design and learn from the research process. Rather than aiming for Avant-Garde design structures that fulfill the need sustainably and efficiently. Through exploration and experimentation, design is conscious and well-informed. 

Self-Formation + Economy + Lightness

  • Frei Otto

An avid reader with an interest in social justice and architecture. Having grown up with an interest in art, she expressed herself through drawings and paintings and later architecture as an additional medium of expression. She believes architecture can aid is solving multiple social issues through careful planning and design.