Frei Otto: Spanning the Future
[Frei Otto: Antecipando o Futuro]
“Over half a century ago, architect and engineer Frei Otto became world famous as a pioneer in the design of tensile structures. Born in Chemnitz, Germany, in 1925, Otto’s life story is set against the sweep of European History, beginning with the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s, their ultimate defeat in the Second World War in the 1940s, followed by the reconstruction of Europe in the 1950s and 60s.
While studying Architecture in Berlin, Otto, at the tender age of seventeen, was drafted into the Luftwaffe [the German Air Force during World War II], becoming a pilot. Shot down over France in 1945, Otto became a POW [prisoner of war]. While imprisoned he began to create makeshift tents out of sheets and blankets. The need for shelter in a circumstance of material shortages would be the conceptual underpinning of his life’s work.
After the war, Otto studied briefly in the United States. While in the US, Otto met with, among others, Eric Mendelson, Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra, Frank Lloyd Wright and, most significantly, Buckminster Fuller, a fellow traveler in theoretical Structural Engineering. Returning to Germany in 1952, Otto completed his studies of the Technical University in Berlin and established his practice. In 1954, he earned his doctorate. And it would be the following year, 1955, when Otto would produce his first significant works: the tents for the Federal Garden Exhibition in Kassel.
With his simple gestures, Otto subjugated the prose of structure to the poetry of form, giving new meaning to the idea less is more. The fact that the tents were temporary was important to Otto. He viewed his impermanent structures as rejoinders to the portentous streams of permanence embraced by the vanquished Third Reich, which was envisioned to last for thousand years. Otto’s tents, on the other hand, were meant to stand for just a few months. Giving this philosophy, it makes sense that Otto would seek out commissions for structures for other short-lived events.
Just a few years later, in 1957, Otto would get the opportunity to create an array of tents for another Federal Garden Exhibition, this one in Cologne. The design for the structures arose out of his research in tensile architecture and were based on the concept he first realized in Kassel.
Up to this point, Otto was well known in Germany, but little known anywhere else. This situation would radically change with his commission for the German Pavilion for Expo 67 in Montreal, which made him world famous. The complex tent forms comprising the pavilion were the results of the experiments he had overseen at the Institute for Lightweight Structures, at the Technical University in Stuttgart, that he had founded in 1964.
In addition to the pavilion, Otto built a structure in Montreal to house the Institute itself, illustrating the portability of his designs. Like the Institute, Otto’s home and studio, completed in 1970, also served as a laboratory for testing his ideas about lightweight structures.
Without a doubt, Otto’s designs for the complex of structures built for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich already established its place in the history of architecture. The Olympic Stadium, done in collaboration with architect Günter Behnisch, is widely regarded as a masterpiece. The Munich Olympics, nicknamed The Happy Games, were meant to showcase a prosperous and democratic West Germany, but the event was marred by the horrific terrorist attacks on the Israeli team. The Stadium still stands today not as a reminder of the tragedy, but is evidence of lingering triumph of Otto’s futuristic genius.
Much of Otto’s work would emerge from his wide-ranging research projects undertaken at the Institute for Lightweight Structures. For the Multihalle in Mannheim, for example, constructed for the Federal Garden Exhibition of 1975, Otto put into practice theories about grid shells. The specific nature of the grid shells were determined through inverted models made of undulating chain mesh.
Otto’s ethically driven minimalism means that he hopes to make small mark on the earth as possible. In this light, it is not unexpected that Otto would feel that the Hellabrunn Aviary at the Munich Zoo, completed in 1980, was his greatest accomplishment, since it’s barely there.
To realize his designs, Otto embraced emerging advancements in mathematics and engineering, with most of his work having been done were made before digital programs, making his accomplishments all the more remarkable.
Otto’s groundbreaking work is still influencing architects, designers and engineers around the world. And surely his influence will only increase in the coming decades as resources are increasingly exhausted, while, at the same time, the urgent need for a variety of structures will be constantly increased.”