Frei Otto (1925–2015)

Frei Otto, 2015. Photo courtesy the Pritzker Architecture Prize / The Hyatt Foundation.

The DESIGN of the future in the grip of the human vortex. All the past that is vital, all the past that is capable of living into the future, is pregnant in the vortex, NOW.
—Ezra Pound, “Vortex,” BLAST, 1914

THE AWARD OF THE PRITZKER ARCHITECTURE PRIZE this year to Frei Otto was a welcome surprise, though his passing so soon after he learned the news felt a bit like a reproach. Time doesn’t wait for the Pritzker or the Nobel, it’s clear. Otto would have been ninety on May 31. The prize was awarded posthumously on May 15 in Miami. In 1996, Otto wrote that all architects could be divided into three categories: “Arrangeur, Diebe, und Erfinder” (arrangers, thieves, and inventors). He believed that “inventors lay the groundwork for architecture, but they must often wait a long time before their contribution is recognized.” Indeed, Otto was dependent on the collaboration of “arrangers.” And his ideas and inventions were of course freely and frequently stolen (when he wasn’t already giving them away). His two most significant built projects, the main sports facilities for the 1972 Munich Olympics and the 1975 roof for the Multihalle in Mannheim, were brought to him after their respective architects, Günter Behnisch and Fritz Auer for Munich and Carlfried Mutschler for Mannheim, had won competitions with concepts drawn from Otto’s work. Otto had himself won an earlier competition for the German pavilion at the World Exposition 1967 in Montreal, with his friend the architect Rolf Gutbrod; the forms and materials of both the cable roof used in Munich and the wood lath roof for Mannheim first appeared in the Montreal pavilion. While the two later projects were widely published and admired, the vector of influence was not in doubt.

At the Montreal Expo 67 both the forty-two-year-old Otto and the seventy-two-year-old R. Buckminster Fuller designed their respective national pavilions. Both structures remain influential. In Fuller’s case, the geodesic dome represented his rationalist philosophy of design science and planning. In the half century since, the dome has been less consequential as a form than as the map of a way of thinking, a metaphor or synecdoche for Fuller’s view of life on Spaceship Earth. In Otto’s case, the form of his work has proved most influential. Despite their rational origin in the minimal surfaces of mathematics (famously explored through soap film models) the Montreal, Munich, and Mannheim roofs are exquisite forms that hover somewhere between landscape and cloud, their airy, immaterial structures belying their size. They are spiderwebs on a kaiju scale. They don’t seem man-made, let alone “authored.” They are “as little as possible and as much as necessary” or, following Jefferson and Pound’s motto, right at the fulcrum of tempus loquendi / tempus tacendi.

Frei Otto, the Germany Pavilion at the Expo 67, 1967, Montreal, Canada. Photo: Frei Otto.

The composition of these structures—the tilt of the masts, the varied sizes and extent of the webs of cable or wood lath—have the inevitable quality of the most carefully contrived landscapes. While the authorship of each of the three projects is spread between the many collaborators, the language is clearly one invented by Otto. He stands at the center in the eye of each vortex as both an attractor and the focus of each collaborator’s anxiety of influence. He is the instigator and inventor, a figure like Pound, Duchamp, or Max Ernst, both charismatic and enigmatic. After all, his built work is quite limited beyond these three great projects, which mark the feasibility and potential of the vast body of research and the many unbuilt projects that have been so widely copied and adapted, from the cable structures, hump tents, and grid shells to the tree structures and pneumatic forms. Entire careers have been elevated by his influence.

The projects even gave birth to two competing methods of form finding through the computer modeling of nonlinear structures with large displacements such as fabrics or cable nets—distinct German-American and English lineages. The Munich and Mannheim projects each brought about new methods in computer-based numerical analysis in order to specify both the precise geometry of the funicular forms and to calculate the element stresses and overall deformations. For Munich, the great German structural engineer Jörg Schlaich, working with the finite-element pioneer John Argyris, developed the first iterative method for analyzing large deformation structures in cables or fabric. For Mannheim it was the Irish engineer and Schlaich’s exact contemporary, Peter Rice, who with Alistair Day created the “Anglo” method for analyzing cables and fabric known as Dynamic Relaxation. These are the two main tools that have been used for analyzing all the large cable and fabric structures in the world, and both were created specifically to overcome the challenges of translating the research models of Frei Otto’s lab into full-scale application. Otto, the son of a sculptor, never liked his role as instigator of the transition from the “tactility” of analog physical models to abstract numerical tools.

Frei Otto, Roofing for main sports facilities at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics, 1972. Photo: Christine Kanstinger.

And yet there is no question that Otto has been influential both as form maker and instigator. What is striking though is that his influence was largely achieved without any of the conventional vehicles of authorship in architecture. “The search for the minimal in architecture is simultaneously a search for the essence of material form” he wrote in 1990. Peter Rice in his An Engineer Imagines (1994) wrote of Otto: “In one way I see him as a twentieth-century Brunel. Think of the way Brunel worked and the kind of things he did, the broad range of activities he covered. He must have worked similarly to Frei. Frei uses intuition backed up by physics rather than mathematics. He has a strong physical sense. . . . We should call him an inventor.” Otto’s means of construction were drawn from the nomadic vernacular of the tent, and his influence could be likened to that of the peripatetic Socrates.

It is fitting that with Richard Rogers on the jury the Pritzker should be award to Otto. It was Rogers that put Ove Arup and his then associates Edmund Happold and Peter Rice in touch with Otto for the Mannheim project. And it was Rogers who, with Renzo Piano, would be deeply inspired and influenced by Otto in multiple ways; these two architects would also become Rice’s principle collaborators. The vortex or vortices of Frei Otto’s influence have begotten a great many threads of contemporary architecture, and one hopes that the Pritzker will carry on with more and wide-ranging forays into the primal grounds of architecture and engineering. The choice of Frei Otto, even if it is in many ways too late, opens up a rich set of questions about the role of collaboration and authorship in architecture. Perhaps it will spur better inquiry and theory so that architecture can catch up with art, music, and film and develop a more nuanced and sophisticated theory of its production and its many mothers.

Guy Nordenson is a professor of architecture at Princeton University and a partner of the structural-engineering practice Guy Nordenson and Associates.