“Cities in flames seen from above are one of the toughest semesters for an architectural student.” This was Frei Otto, the influential German architect, engineer, teacher and writer, who has died at the age of 89, recollecting his experience as a trainee Luftwaffe fighter pilot. The view from a Messerschmitt Bf 109 as the Third Reich went up in flames, he said, encouraged him to imagine a postwar architecture that would be transparent, democratic, non-hierarchical and free.
Just weeks before Frei Otto’s 90th birthday the designs were revealed for the new Google campus proposed for Mountain View, California, designed by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick. They owe much to his work and the design could have come from his 1970s sketchbooks
Frei Otto liked to refer to himself more as a natural scientist than an engineer, taking inspiration from an obsessive study of natural forms. He established the Institute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart in 1964, which at times could be mistaken for the storerooms of a natural history museum: his mind was occupied more with the secrets of bird skulls and crustacean shells, plant cells and branching coral, than the stresses of reinforced concrete.
Primitive forms were a keen interest too, from Mongolian yurts to tribal tepees, but his ultimate quest was deducing the geometric magic of the humble soap bubble. Given a set of fixed points, he noted, soap film will spread naturally to offer the smallest achievable surface area. It became the premise for many of his projects, from the German Pavilion at the 1967 Montreal Expo to the aviary at Munich zoo.
Frei Otto pioneered tensile and membrane structures in architecture, inspiring me and a generation of architects who developed these innovative forms to produce everything from the Millennium Dome to pleasure-domes in Kazakhstan and service stations all over the world.
The news of his death this month came with the announcement that later this year he was to be awarded the Pritzker Prize that is the world’s premier architectural award. I am told that he learned of the news before he died and greeted it with the modest comment “I have never done anything to gain this prize. I will use whatever time is left to me to keep doing what I have been doing, which is to help humanity.”
Frei’s work was a huge influence on the “high tech” generation of British architects. Richard Rogers, one of the Pritzker jurors, cites Otto as a major hero, and his influence can be seen in Rogers’ 1994 proposals for the South Bank to the tents of his Ashford Designer Outlet and the Millennium Dome. Frei Otto’s influence is seen in Michael Hopkins’ Schlumberger Centre and Mound Stand at Lords, while his investigations into pneumatic structures were taken up by Nicholas Grimshaw in the cellular domes of the Eden Project and Leicester’s National Space Centre. His ideas are found in Norman Foster’s work too, from the great grid-shell roof over the Great Court at the British Museum to his huge pleasure-tent in Kazakhstan.
For my part his influence is clear in my winning entry for the International Competition to design a demountable theatre for the National Eistedfodd of Wales, again in my 5,000 seat Royal International Pavilion Theatre in Llangollen, in the Dockside Shopping Centre at Chatham Maritime and the un-built designs for Golders Green Station. Last week I submitted a competition entry that must for the moment remain confidential and, yes, it includes some tension membrane structures.
Frei Otto himself was frustrated that his ideas didn’t go further afield. His dream of developing a new language for a democratic world remained confined to the domain of aviaries and mega-events. In the 1970s he envisioned a fantastical speculative proposal for an Arctic City, to house 40,000 people under a 2km-wide inflatable dome. But it was a utopia that he became highly critical of later in life.
“Why should we build very large spaces when they are not necessary?” he asked “We can build houses that are two or three kilometres high and 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?”
It’s not not hard to see why he had mixed feelings about his own legacy. “My generation had a big task after the war and of course we thought we could do it better,” he said. “Today 60 years later, we can’t be proud of what we have done. But we tried; we tried to go a new way.”
That not withstanding Frei was the godfather of an entire generation of architects and engineers – and his legacy lives on.