The 2015 Pritzker Architecture Prize was bestowed posthumously upon the great German architect Frei Otto. The award ceremony—held at the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami Beach, Florida—was a moving tribute to the man who changed the way we look at architecture. Otto passed away on March 9, 2015, shortly after Pritzker executive director Martha Thorne had flown to the city of Stuttgart to notify him he had won the Prize.
Some of the world’s most influential architects were present at the ceremony, including Pritzker laureates Glenn Murcutt (2002), Richard Rogers (2007), Shigeru Ban (2014), Lord Norman Foster (1999), Dame Zaha Hadid (2004), Thom Mayne (2005), and Jean Nouvel (2008). Christine Otto-Kanstinger accepted the medallion on behalf of her father.
In absentia, and to honor his legacy, a four-point tensile tent designed by Otto for the music pavilion at the 1955 Federal Garden Exhibition in Kassel, Germany, was reproduced for the occasion. It served as the entrance gate to a black-tie dinner, which set the mood as guests were treated to a Fanfare for the Prize composed by Michael Tilson Thomas as they made their way into the gala.
Lord Peter Palumbo, Chair of the Pritzker Prize jury, said Otto's "free spirit was to imbue and inform his architecture with the literature of life in the way that people feel sublimating the self in the interest and for the good of humanity and most especially for the poor and defenseless." In their citation, the members of the jury acknowledged, "the lessons of his pioneering work in the field of lightweight structures that are adaptable, changeable and carefully use limited resources are as relevant today as when they were first proposed over 60 years ago."
Frei Otto (1925-2015) was born in Siegmar, Germany the son of a stonemason and a sculptor. His mother prophetically named him Frei (Free in German). She couldn't had foreseen the way this name would influence the work and glory of her son, whose most attractive structures remind us of the freedom of forms and ideas as a way to interpret what he called "lightness against brutality".
After high school, Otto enrolled at the Technical University of Berlin to study architecture, but with the advent of WWII he was drafted into the German air force. He would later become a prisoner of war from 1945 to 1947 at a camp near Chartres, France, where he became the field architect. The lack of building materials forced him to learn and invent the basics of simple, lightweight construction.
1. Frei Otto, Montreal, Canada. Photo: © Von Schlaich.
2. Entrance Arch at the Federal Garden Exhibition, 1957, Cologne, Germany.
3. Roof for the Multihalle (multi-purpose hall) in Mannheim, 1970–1975, Mannheim, Germany. Photo: © Frei Otto.
4. Roof for the Multihalle 1970–1975, Mannheim, Germany. Photo: © Archive Frei Otto.
In 1950 he traveled to the United States after presenting his avant-garde dissertation "The Hanging Roof" where he described his research in the field of tensile, cable net construction. These whimsical, intriguing weavings captivated our attention and propelled us into the future, a concept that will carry his oeuvre throughout his illustrious career.
Otto experimented with unusual materials for construction, such as paper, fabric, and air to build people-friendly architecture in harmony with nature. His ideas drew inspiration from the cell as nature's smallest building block. In 1964, Frei Otto founded the celebrated Institute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart, which he directed until his death.
Farseeing, Otto was an environmentalist long before the green movement became a leading force, and conducted crucial research on the problems that separate us from the environment. He also rebelled against architectural developments that squandered the resources on purely profit-driven building. In 1987, he made a grand statement at the International Building Exhibition in Berlin with the presentation of eco-houses that demonstrated his idea of ecologically based architecture.
1. Expo 67, 1967, Montreal, Canada. Photo: © Frei Otto.
2. «City in the Arctic» model, Unbuilt. Photo: © Archive Frei Otto.
3. Diplomatic Club, 1980, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
4. Roof for the Multihalle in Mannheim, 1970–1975, Mannheim, Germany. Photo: © Frei Otto.
5. Model for Expo 67.
6. Roofing for main sports facilities in the Munich Olympic Park for the 1972 Summer Olympics, 1968–1972, Munich, Germany.
But perhaps his most emblematic structure is the stunning roof of the 1972 Munich Olympic Arena, a radical triumph of his engineering vocabulary. He continued to work as an architect and engineer well into his later days, developing several projects in the Middle East. Maintaining his innovative spirit until the very end, his latest works included a project with Pritzker laureate Shigeru Ban on the Japanese Pavillion at Expo 2000 Hannover with a roof made entirely of paper.
Frei Otto was a visionary free spirit, a critical and independent thinker committed to making architecture socially and biologically sustainable. He even drew speculative plans for a town in Antarctica as early as 1953. The great architect may be gone, but his legacy will live forever. As Pritzker laureate Lord Norman Foster said: “As much, then, as his extraordinary sequence of works altered the nature of architectural form in the 20th century, his environmentalism, intelligence, and foresight have established the defining architectural mentality for the 21st. He is an inspiration.” ■
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