Frei Otto Dies, Wins Pritzker, As His Ideas Become New Again

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Frei Otto, the German architect of gorgeous lightweight tent-like structures, has been awarded the Pritzker Prize, just two weeks after his death at 89.

But his influence lives on, most notably in the design for a new Googleplex by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick.

Roofing for main sports facilities in the Munich Olympic Park for the 1972 Summer Olympics, 1968–1972 Munich, Germany; Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn

Father of Tent-like Structures Wins Pritzker Prize, Posthumously

The announcement of the winner of the annual Pritzker Prize was announced ahead of schedule on Tuesday, March 10, due to the sudden death of its honoree: German architect and engineer Frei Otto. The 89 year-old creator of the famed sports facilities for the Munich Olympics received the prize in recognition, wrote the New York Times‘ Robin Pogrebin, “of his airy tentlike structures and other inventive feats of engineering.”

Frei Paul Otto died two weeks before he was to be publicly named this year’s laureate on March 28 although happily he had been privately told of the selection a few weeks earlier.

“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,” the jury said in its citation.

Frei Otto ©2015 The Hyatt Foundation

Otto got his start in tent structures in the 1950s, which he created as temporary pavilions at the German Federal Garden exhibitions and other festivals in postwar years. This followed a wartime experience during which he was held as prisoner of war in a camp near Chartres in France. There he worked as a camp architect, learning to build various structures with minimal materials. After the war, he studied architecture at the Technical University of Berlin, and earned a doctorate of civil engineering in 1954.

He gained international fame with his tensile roof structures for the Munich Olympic games. “The lightness and strength of Mr. Otto’s large-scale roofs for the 1972 Munich Olympics stadium, designed with Günter Behnisch, defied expectations,” writes the Times, “though the structure was largely overshadowed by the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches there by Palestinian terrorists.”

Frei Otto Influence Reawakened

These kinds of roof structures, so innovative at the time, but superseded in the US by the sculptural, more opaque structures of the intervening years, have bounced back into public consciousness, in the form of the design for Google’s proposed vast new campus in Mountain View.

Exterior of proposed Googleplex by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick; rendering courtesy Google
Exterior of proposed Googleplex by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick; rendering courtesy Google

The design for 3.4 million square feet of office space, released last week by the company and conceived by 40-something architects Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, proposes to house thousands of workers in flexible spaces underneath an energy efficient transparent skin, all situated in a parkland with bike and waterways that would conceal the inevitable rings of traffic and layers of car parking serving the area.

The company touts their innovative, flexible nature.

But when DnA talked to Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright and architect Clive Wilkinson, designer of an earlier Google structure, for this show about the Google design, both cited the elderly Frei Otto as clear influences.

The Google design, said Wainwright, “could have been dreamed up in 1967,” and reminded him of Archigram, Buckminster Fuller and “Frei Otto, the great German engineer who did the Munich Olympics in 1972 which was this incredible glass tent roof which covered the Olympic Stadium and then really extended like an organic structure to cover the rest of the activities around.”

Wilkinson made similar points, saying: “When I saw the first images of this it fascinated because there is a history about what things are put in tents.” He went on to cite Fuller’s fantasies, the 1851 Crystal Palace and “Frei Otto’s Olympic structures of the early 1970s — massive, incredible, tensile, structures that really validated this whole technology. . .”

Hall at the International Garden Exhibition, 1963, Hamburg, Germany; Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn
Hall at the International Garden Exhibition, 1963, Hamburg, Germany; Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn

The Pritzker jury described the architect work as “a holistic and collaborative approach to architecture, working with environmentalists, biologists, engineers, philosophers, historians, naturalists, artists, and other architects. A distinguished teacher and author, Otto pioneered the use of modern lightweight tent-like structures for many uses. He was attracted to them partly for their economical and ecological values. He believed in making efficient, responsible use of materials, and that architecture should make a minimal impact on the environment. Frei Otto was a utopian who never stopped believing that architecture can make a better world for all.

“In contrast to the heavy, columned, stone and masonry architecture preferred by the National Socialists in the Germany in which he grew up — Otto’s work was lightweight, open to nature and natural light, non-hierarchical, democratic, low-cost, energy-efficient, and sometimes designed to be temporary.”

Japan Pavilion, Expo 2000, Hannover 2000, Hannover, Germany; Photos by Hiroyuki Hirai
Japan Pavilion, Expo 2000, Hannover 2000, Hannover, Germany; Photos by Hiroyuki Hirai

In another connection to the newly released scheme for Google, Frei Otto made a mark designing lightweight, temporary structures for international events and expositions, among them the German pavilion at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition (Expo 67) and the Japan Pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany, (shown above; designed with Shigeru Ban, 2014 laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize).

So too did Google’s young designers: both Thomas Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels gained international acclaim for their designs for the Shanghai Expo, Heatherwick for his conceptual Seed Pavilion representing the United Kingdom and Ingels for his Danish celebration of sustainability and biking.

Frei stands for Freedom

Fans of Otto’s work had reportedly lobbied the Pritzker jury for years to give the award to Frei Otto. Sadly, he received it too late to enjoy the praise of his fellows or to keep on delivering his lovely, diaphanous structures.

But on learning of the honor shortly before his death, he reportedly told Pritzker officials: “I’ve never done anything to gain this prize. . . Prize-winning is not the goal of my life. I try to help poor people, but what shall I say here, I’m very happy.”

In concluding its press release the Chair of the jury of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, Lord Peter Palumbo, said Frei Otto’s “loss will be felt wherever the art of architecture is practiced the world over, for he was a universal citizen; whilst his influence will continue to gather momentum by those who are aware of it, and equally, by those who are not.


“Frei stands for Freedom, as free and as liberating as a bird in flight, swooping and soaring in elegant and joyful arcs, unrestrained by the dogma of the past, and as compelling in its economy of line and in the improbability of its engineering as it is possible to imagine, giving the marriage of form and function the invisibility of the air we breathe, and the beauty we see in Nature.”

Aviary in the Munich Zoo at Hellabrunn, 1979-1980, Munich (Hellabrunn), Germany; Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn
Aviary in the Munich Zoo at Hellabrunn, 1979-1980, Munich (Hellabrunn), Germany; Photo © Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn

 Listen to the discussion with Brooke Hodge, Oliver Wainwright and Clive Wilkinson about the new Googleplex, designed by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, below.