Frei Otto, born almost 90 years ago in Germany, has spent his long career researching, experimenting, and developing a most sensitive architecture that has influenced countless others throughout the world. The lessons of his pioneering work in the field of lightweight structures that are adaptable, changeable and carefully use limited resources are as relevant today as when they were first proposed over 60 years ago. He has embraced a definition of architect to include researcher, inventor, form-finder, engineer, builder, teacher, collaborator, environmentalist, humanist, and creator of memorable buildings and spaces.
He first became known for his tent structures used as temporary exhibition pavilions. The constructions at the German Federal Garden exhibitions and other festivals of the 1950s were functional, beautiful, “floating” roofs that seemed to effortlessly provide shelter, and then were easily dissembled after the events.
The cable net structure employed for the German Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, prefabricated in Germany and assembled on site in a short period of time, was a highlight of the exhibition for its grace and originality. The impressive large-scale roofs designed for the Munich Olympics of 1972, combining lightness and strength, were a building challenge that many said could not be achieved. The architectural landscape for stadium, pool and public spaces, a result of the efforts of a large team, is still impressive today.
Taking inspiration from nature and the processes found there, he sought ways to use the least amount of materials and energy to enclose spaces. He practiced and advanced ideas of sustainability, even before the word was coined. He was inspired by natural phenomena – from birds’ skulls to soap bubbles and spiders’ webs. He spoke of the need to understand the “physical, biological and technical processes which give rise to objects.” Branching concepts from the 1960s optimized structures to support large flat roofs. A grid shell, such as seen in the Mannheim Multihalle of 1974, shows how a simple structural solution, easy to assemble, can create a most striking, flexible space. The Mechtenberg footbridges, with the use of humble slender rods and connecting nodes, but with advanced knowledge, produce an attractive filigree pattern and spandistances up to 30 meters. Otto’s constructions are in harmony with nature and always seek to do more with less.