The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Frei Otto

The German architect, teacher and writer Frei Otto has died at the age of 89. His parents, noted Jonathan Glancey in the Guardian, were members of the Deutscher Werkbund, appalled by what the Nazis had created, artistically as well as politically.

Otto was encouraged to imagine a post-war architecture that would be transparent, democratic and free. After WWII, he studied architecture and in the US met his heroes, Eames, Neutra, Saarinen, Wright and, above all, Mies van der Rohe, the last Bauhaus director before it was forced to close in 1933. He was also exposed to the work of the Russian structural engineer Vladimir Shukhov (1853-1939), a pioneer of light-weight structures more than half a century before computers made them easily possible.

In a long career, Otto helped create the floating, net-like roofs of the German pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal, the Summer Olympics stadium in Munich (1972), and
the aviary at Munich Zoo (1980). The soap bubble was an inspiration, said Fred Bernstein in the New York Times: it showed him how to create the maximum enclosure with the minimum of material. Like Buckminster Fuller, he was drawn to designing world’s fair pavilions whose temporary nature gave him the freedom to experiment with unconventional materials and methods. In Britain, his influence on high-tech architects can be seen in the fabric roof of the Mound Stand at Lord’s (1987) and the bubble-like domes of the Eden Project (2000).

His tent-like constructions, inspired by organic forms like cobwebs, trees and skeletons, brought a sense of light and openness to public buildings, said Marcus Williamson in the Independent. ‘Everything man is doing in architecture is to try to go against nature,’ Otto once said. ‘The secret, I think, of the future is not doing too much. All architects have the tendency to do too much.’