Frei Otto was born on 31 May 1925 in Siegmar, Germany. His parents were members of the Deutscher Werkbund, a group of artists and designers, and he enrolled at the Technische Universität to study architecture. However, in 1943 he was drafted into the war, initially as a pilot and then as a foot solider, but was captured in 1945 and became a prisoner of war.
He returned to Berlin in 1948 to continue studying architecture, and won a six-month scholarship to visit the University of Virginia. Whilst in America, he met Fred Severud, designer of the L.S. Dorton Arena in Raleigh, the first modern, doubly curved, pre-stressed saddle structure, which is popularly believed to signify the birth of the modern 'tent'. He also met Eero Saarinen, designer of Yale University’s doubly-curved Hockey Rink.
He graduated as an architect in 1952, but continued to study for a doctorate. He began exhaustive investigations into the structural principles behind the new generation of lightweight buildings and in 1954 published his thesis, ‘Dan Hangende Dach’ (The Suspended Roof).
Even before the publication of his thesis, the practical implications of his work were brought to the attention of the tent manufacturer Stromeyer and Co. Peter Stromeyer made both his experience and resources available to Otto, and between them over the next twenty years, they were to undertake much of the intensive research and experimental construction which served to bring pre-stressed fabric structures into the vocabulary of the contemporary architect.
Otto's early projects included the bandstand for the 1955 Federal Garden Exhibition in Kassel and the twin saddle structures at the entrance to the 1957 Cologne garden exhibition. In 1957 he established the Development Centre for Lightweight Construction using money he had received for commissions.
In 1964 the centre was re-named the Institute for Lightweight Structures and became affiliated to the University of Stuttgart. It was primarily concerned with developing methods for deriving the ideal forms for tensile surfaces. Initially these investigations were based on detailed studies of soap films and wire mesh models, however later Otto was to meet the mathematician Fritz Leonhardt, who set about making this form finding process more mathematically explicit.
Much of Otto's early research was embodied in the Montreal German Pavilion (1967), and a new permanence was heralded by the plexi glass clad cable net of the 1972 Munich Olympic Stadium. International recognition came with design for the 8,000m² German pavilion for the 1967 Montreal Expo in Canada.
[Image: Munich Olympic Stadium]
Otto continued to work at the institute, but in in 1969 founded a new private studio in Stuttgart. He collaborated closely with British engineer Ted Happold, founder of engineering practice Buro Happold, on projects such as the 1975 Mannheim Multihalle, the 1980 aviary at Munich Zoo and the 1986 Diplomatic Club in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
He died on 9 March 2015 at the age of 89, shortly after being told he had been selected to receive the 2015 Pritzker Prize.
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