Frei Otto: an architectural dreamer who was ahead of the curve

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Frei Otto Receives the 2015 Pritzker Architecture Prize
Frei Otto ©2015 The Pritzker Architecture Prize / The Hyatt Foundation
Frei Otto Receives the 2015 Pritzker Architecture Prize
Frei Otto
©2015 The Pritzker Architecture Prize / The Hyatt Foundation

Otto is the German architect and engineer who died Monday at the age of 89, and was publicly lauded the next day with the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award. A powerful but relatively obscure figure, Otto’s most important buildings were completed decades ago. He lacked the global ubiquity of the Gehrys, Fosters and Rogers of his generation. Unlike those men, Otto chose a largely solitary and noncommercial path. As a prisoner of war in France – he had been drafted into the German military in 1943 – he was charged with building camp structures using the fewest possible materials.

In the scarcity of postwar Germany, he pursued a career as an architect, engineer and academic while imagining structures as ingenious and efficient as nature itself. Spiderwebs, coral reefs, soap bubbles: These forms inspired his research into structural and material innovation.

He anticipated the obsessions with natural forms and complex curves that have dominated the architectural avant-garde of the past generation. Without him, the work of Zaha Hadid and much of Frank Gehry is unimaginable.

Like Buckminster Fuller, Otto dreamed up unlikely shapes long before the arrival of the computer in architecture, and proved they could be realized. At Expo 67 in Montreal, Canadians got to experience his work at the West German pavilion, a giant tent-like expanse with enormous curves supported by tall masts. Such tensile structures were his trademarks, most famously for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where he (together with architect Gunter Behnisch) designed the cloud-like cable-net roofs over the Olympic Park’s main stadium and nearby pool. ….

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