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Frei Otto


German architect Frei Otto (1925-2015) grew up in a family of sculptors, learned the craft and became interested in model building and gliding. A pilot in wartime, he was taken prisoner in France in 1945 and supervised a construction and maintenance team during his imprisonment.
He studied at the Technische Universität in Berlin between 1948 and 1952. While travelling in the US he met Eero Sarinen and engineer Fred Severud, who were working on a suspended roof for Raleigh arena. “From that time on the study and construction of light-framed structures became the key theme of his studies” (Drieschner), and in 1954 he wrote his graduating thesis on the “suspended roof”.
In 1957 he founded a workshop for light constructions in Berlin (which later became Institute-IL at Stuttgart Polytechnic), where he began a teaching career that he was to continue for thirty years (he is also an MIT visiting professor). Famous for his roofs and temporary structures, “sectors in which he is considered the greatest scientific authority and the most significant artistic personality on the world scene” (Baldoni), since the seventies Frei Otto has conducted essential scientific research in the fields of natural constructions and bio-ecology.
His research and experimentation in the laboratory led to numerous theoretical studies, publications and “utopian visions (along the lines of other great structurists such as Wachsmann and Fuller) with ideas for covering over ports, cities, even whole regions, professional work as a structural engineer and consultant, from the scale of furniture to large-scale structures”.
Between 1957 and 1963 he built pavilions for flower shows in Kassel, Cologne and Hamburg; his constant exploration of constructive and formal possibilities made these works key landmarks in the sector.
He later designed the roof on the theatre in Wunsiedel (1963); the German Federal Republic pavilion at the Expo in Montreal (1967), and most famously the roofs on the facilities for the Munich Olympics (1972), where he acted as a consultant in the project by Studio Behnisch.
With his pavilions for the flower show in Mannheim (1975), “of amazingly simple construction, but with a highly persuasive configuration”, Otto produced his famous “biomorphous works”, many of which branch upwards to lighten the loads on various different roofs.
His theories say that “man and his technologies can be inseparable parts of nature”, and he coined the expression “natural weight-bearing structure” to express the fact that “for every project there is a minimal construction solution, which must at the same time be aesthetically appropriate”.
He was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2015, one day after his death.
Frei Otto famous works and projects
- Reconstruction of central station (with C. Ingenhoven), Stuttgart (Germany), 2000
- Japanese pavilion for Expo 2000 (with S. Ban), Hannover (Germany), 2000
- Expansion of Wilkhahn furniture factory, Bad Münder (Germany), 1989
- Tuwaiq Palace (with B. Happold), Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), 1985
- Ecological tree-house at the International Architecture Exhibition, Berlin (Germany), 1984
- Sports Building – Aziz University, Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), 1981
- Diplomatic Club, Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), 1980
- Birdcage (with J. Gribl), Hellabrunn, Munich (Germany), 1980
- Multipurpose hall (with C. Mutschler), Mannheim (Germany), 1975
- Open-air theatre, Scarborough (Great Britain), 1974
- Roof over Olympic sports area (with G. Behnisch), Munich (Germany), 1972
- Convertible open-air theatre, Bad Hersfeld (Germany), 1968
- Hotel and conference centre (with R. Gutbrod), Mecca (Saudi Arabia), 1974
- German Federal Republic Pavilion (with R. Gutbrod) at Expo Montreal (Canada), 1967
- Pavilions and tents for flower shows in Kassel, Cologne, Hamburg (Gemany), 1955-1963

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