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Frei Otto: an architectural dreamer who was ahead of the curve

German architect Frei Otto died Monday at the age of 89. He was publicly lauded the next day with the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s most prestigious award.

Last month, Google let slip plans for its new headquarters in Silicon Valley. The images depict treed walking paths, office lofts draped with greenery and a class of yogis in goddess pose – creative work, nature and recreation under one roof.

And what a roof. It's a vast, translucent canopy, curving with the lightness of a spiderweb. Google is in the position to build whatever it wants and its architects, Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, are young and imaginative. But they are pursuing a vision that goes straight back to architecture's idealistic era of the 1960s, and especially the dreams of Frei Otto.

Otto is the German architect and engineer who died Monday at the age of 89, and was publicly lauded the next day with the Pritzker Prize, architecture's most prestigious award. A powerful but relatively obscure figure, Otto's most important buildings were completed decades ago. He lacked the global ubiquity of the Gehrys, Fosters and Rogers of his generation.

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Unlike those men, Otto chose a largely solitary and noncommercial path. As a prisoner of war in France – he had been drafted into the German military in 1943 – he was charged with building camp structures using the fewest possible materials.

In the scarcity of postwar Germany, he pursued a career as an architect, engineer and academic while imagining structures as ingenious and efficient as nature itself. Spiderwebs, coral reefs, soap bubbles: These forms inspired his research into structural and material innovation.

He anticipated the obsessions with natural forms and complex curves that have dominated the architectural avant-garde of the past generation. Without him, the work of Zaha Hadid and much of Frank Gehry is unimaginable.

Like Buckminster Fuller, Otto dreamed up unlikely shapes long before the arrival of the computer in architecture, and proved they could be realized. At Expo 67 in Montreal, Canadians got to experience his work at the West German pavilion, a giant tent-like expanse with enormous curves supported by tall masts. Such tensile structures were his trademarks, most famously for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where he (together with architect Gunter Behnisch) designed the cloud-like cable-net roofs over the Olympic Park's main stadium and nearby pool.

Otto wrote and researched widely on tensile structures like those and on grid shells, rigid structures that can achieve huge spans and great strength through double-curved geometries. He was a pioneer in extending architecture's frame of reference. A long-time professor at the University of Stuttgart, he established the biology and building research group at the Technical University of Berlin in 1961, and made deep explorations of natural geometries in collaboration with biologists.

The political and ecological dimensions of this work are undeniable. "After the war," he told the BBC, "I wanted … to make a real revolution in architecture, remaking Germany as a peaceful country."

Otto began building lightly as a counterpoint to the stony grandiosity of Nazi architecture, and also as a response to environmental and ecological scarcity. His father and grandfather were sculptors and stonemasons. How could he and his generation employ the techniques of the day to serve a new, more fluid society? And, in doing so, make themselves useful?

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Those are again crucial questions for architects today working in a new era of technical advancements, and the Pritzker Prize hints at an answer. The prize jury, in choosing Otto, made a sort of companion to last year's unexpected Pritzker winner, Shigeru Ban. The two collaborated on the Japan Pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hannover, Germany. Ban's "humanitarian architecture" of cardboard and corrugated plastic owes much to Otto.

But Otto was a poet and a prophet, not a city builder. His most important buildings were one-offs, and they stood outside everyday economics and urbanism – Expo pavilions, convention halls, each with a ceremonial purpose and a loose program of activities. The creativity of that work made an impact, no doubt: Expo 67 was a transformative experience for thousands of Canadians, and it seeded the careers and dreams of more than one young architect, just as the Munich stadium showed a new world of form to young Europeans.

This vision, for Otto, was inseparable from a social and ecological conscience. He was notified before his death that he had won the Pritzker, and said in a statement: "My architectural drive was to design new types of buildings to help poor people especially following natural disasters and catastrophes … I will use whatever time is left to me to keep doing what I have been doing, which is to help humanity."

This is where he differs from those who pick up his formal legacy, architects like Heatherwick and especially Ingels who embrace his mad sixties form-making and leave behind his equally sixties worry about what really matters.

Google's new headquarters embraces the rhetoric of sustainability and the idea of "lightweight," hyper-flexible office space. But do massive, complex, translucent roofs on modular buildings actually serve those goals best? Or could simpler, temporary structures work equally well?

In an interview with Icon magazine in 2005, Otto asked the question: "Why should we build very large spaces when they are not necessary?" He went on to say, "We can design halls spanning several kilometres and covering a whole city, but we have to ask, what does it really make? What does society really need?"

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Otto's career offers a lesson: Don't be evil. Be beautiful – but also useful.

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About the Author
Architecture critic

Alex Bozikovic is The Globe and Mail's architecture critic. His writing appears regularly in the Arts section and in the news pages. He is an author of Toronto Architecture: A City Guide (McClelland and Stewart, 2017). He has won a National Magazine Award and has also written for design publications such as Azure, Blueprint, Dwell, Spacing and Wallpaper. More

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