Frei Otto


Frei Otto was born in Siegmar, Germany, on May 31, 1925, and grew up in Berlin. “Frei” in German means “free”; his mother thought of the name after attending a lecture on freedom.

In 1950, with scholarship funds, he embarked on a study trip through the United States, where he visited the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Erich Mendelsohn, Eero Saarinen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra, Charles and Ray Eames, among others. During this time he also studied sociology and urban development at the University of Virginia.In 1952, Frei Otto became a freelance architect and founded his own architectural office in Berlin.

Frei Otto
Image of architect Frei Otto

Frei 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. As early as the 1950s, he built complex models to test and perfect tensile shapes. Throughout his career, Otto always built physical models to determine the optimum shape of a form and to test its behavior.

Olympia Baugesellschaft,Frei Otto
Image of Olympia Baugesellschaft projected by Frei Otto

In 1968, Otto was named an Honorary Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and was commissioned by Olympia Baugesellschaft in Munich to develop construction measurement models for the projected roof of the main sports stadium in the Munich Olympic Park. The project, realized in May 1972, by Günter Behnisch, Frei Otto, and Fritz Leonhardt, for that year’s Olympics, comprised a large membrane to cover the stands of the Olympic stadium, a tensile structure arena, a fabric roof over the Olympic swimming pool, and hyperbolic membrane canopies to connect the buildings and protect visitors from rain and sun.

Olympia Baugesellschaft, Frei Otto

It happened that the forms of Otto’s buildings often found similar solutions to those in nature and thus resembled natural forms such as bird skulls and spider webs.

Challenged to provide maximum enclosure with minimum materials, Otto referenced the soap bubble for building inspiration. He later revisited the bubble to design the “membrane-topped network of cables” that topped the West German Pavilion at the World Expo in Montreal in 1967.

German Pavilion, Frei Otto
German Pavilion projected by Frei Otto

Frei Otto’s proposal to house 40,000 people under a 2km dome in the Arctic Circle reflected the zeitgeist of the 1970s – a concern about the ecological future combined with the promise of a better tomorrow.

The project sums up several topoi of science-fiction cities, from the controlled interior weather to moving sidewalks, but involves an interesting level of realism.

artic city frei otto
Project designed by Frei Otto at Artic city

In 1975 Frei Otto and architect Carlfried Mutschler designed Multihalle Mannheim.
Delicately curved and almost futuristic in appearance, the multi-purpose hall in Mannheim’s Herzogenried park is the world’s largest construction. Quickly earned the nickname “Wonder of Mannheim” with its organic structure and material-minimised construction, it is famous in architectural circles way beyond German borders.

Multihalle Mannheim
Image of Multihalle Mannheim designed by Frei Otto

Over the years, Otto’s research teams would include philosophers, historians, naturalists and environmentalists. He is a world-renowned innovator in architecture and engineering who pioneered modern fabric roofs over tensile structures and also worked with other materials and building systems such as grid shells, bamboo, and wooden lattices. Otto made the results of the research available to other architects. He always favored collaboration in architecture.

Otto co-designed the Japanese pavilion at the 2000 Hannover Expo with architect Shigeru.

Japanese pavilion at the 2000 Hannover Expo
Image of Japanese pavilion at the 2000 Hannover Expo designed by Frei Otto

Otto wrote extensively throughout his career. His book Biology and Building was published in 1972 with a second volume the next year. Later research led Otto to write about the structural and building properties of bamboo, crustaceans, and soap bubbles. In 1994, he published Ancient Architects on structural inventions from the earliest days of building.

biology and building frei otto
Image of biology and building written by Frei Otto

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