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Frei Otto


The German architect Frei Otto (1925-2015) was raised in a family of sculptors, mastered the craft of stonecutting and took an interest in model building and gliding. A fighter pilot during the war, in 1945 he was taken captive in France. During his imprisonment, he supervised a construction and maintenance team.

Between 1948 and 1952, he studied at the Technical University of Berlin. During a trip to the USA, he met Eero Sarinen and engineer Fred Severud who were setting up the suspended roof of the Raleigh arena. “From then on, the study and construction of light-framed structures became the key theme of his studies” (Drieschner) and, in 1954, he wrote a dissertation on the ‘suspended roof’.

He was also hugely influenced by the works of Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe. In 1957, in Berlin, he founded a workshop for light constructions (which later became Institute-IL at the University of Stuttgart), where he began a 30-year long teaching career (he is also a visiting professor at the MIT).

Known for his roofs and temporary structures, “sectors in which he is considered the leading scientific expert and most important artistic personality on a global level” (Baldoni), since the early 1960s he has conducted fundamental scientific research in the fields of natural constructions and bioecology.

As a result of his research and subsequent lab testing, he produced many theoretical studies, publications and even “utopian visions (following in the footsteps of other great structuralists such as Wachsmann and Fuller) with ideas for roofs for ports, cities and entire 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. By constantly exploring constructive and formal possibilities, these works have become a reference standard for studies in the sector.
He later designed the roof of the theatre in Wunsiedel (1963); the German Federal Republic pavilion at the Expo in Montreal (1967) and, most notably, the roofs of the facilities for the Olympic Games in Munich (1972. with Günter Behnisch), which brought him international recognition.

“The transparent roof, with its 60,000 square meters of translucent sheets of Plexiglas soon became the symbol of the Bavarian capital, besides being a metaphor of a democratic Germany showing the desire to redeem itself from the weight of its recent past” (A, Ferraro, Domus).
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 the various roofs.

These works are examples of a design vision that combines functionality and aesthetics. Even today, they still convey extreme modernity in terms of all the elements they comprise, such as lightness, mobility, simplicity, low cost and low environmental impact.
In an ongoing dialogue that respects all the elements of a project (the environment, the void, the structure and the existing), his works retain “the charm of improvisation and the poetics emerging from the simplest, most minimalist technical means” (R. Krier), without ever imposing their presence in the landscape.

In his theories, Otto also states that “man and his technologies can be inseparable parts of nature” and he coined the expression “natural load-bearing structure” to express the fact that “for every project there is only a minimal construction solution, which must also be aesthetically appropriate”.

On March 10, 2015, the day after he died, he won the Pritzker Prize 2015 for his “visionary ideas, inquiring mind, belief in freely sharing knowledge and inventions, his collaborative spirit and concern for the careful use of resources”.
He received other important awards such as the Wolf Prize in Arts 1996, the Royal Gold Medal 2005, and the Praemium Imperiale for Architecture in 2006.
One of the most significant books dedicated to his work is Frei Otto. Das Gesamtwerk. Leicht bauen - Natürlich gestalten, edited by W.N. Birkhäuser, Basel, 2005.
Frei Otto selected works and projects
- Progetto di ricostruzione della stazione centrale (con C. Ingenhoven), Stoccarda (Germania), 2000
- Padiglione giapponese per l’Expo 2000 (con S. Ban), Hannover (Germania), 2000
- Ampliamento della fabbrica di mobili Wilkhahn, Bad Münder (Germania), 1989
- Tuwaiq Palace (con B. Happold), Riyad (Arabia Saudita), 1985
- Casa-albero ecologica all’Esposizione Internazionale di Architettura, Berlino (Germania), 1984
- Palazzo dello Sport - Università Aziz, Gedda (Arabia Saudita), 1981
- Club diplomatico, Riyad (Arabia Saudita), 1980
- Voliera (con J. Gribl), Hellabrunn, Monaco di Baviera (Germania), 1980
- Sala polifunzionale (con C. Mutschler), Mannheim (Germania), 1975
- Progetto per il teatro all’aperto, Scarborough (Gran Bretagna), 1974
- Copertura dell’area sportiva delle Olimpiadi (con G. Behnisch), Monaco di Baviera (Germania), 1972
- Teatro trasformabile e all’aperto, Bad Hersfeld (Germania), 1968
- Albergo e centro per conferenze (con R. Gutbrod), La Mecca (Arabia Saudita), 1974
- Padiglione della Repubblica Fed. Tedesca (con R. Gutbrod) all’Expo di Montreal (Canada), 1967
- Padiglioni e tende per le Esposizioni floreali di Kassel, Colonia, Amburgo (Germania), 1955-1963

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