FREI OTTO – Impact and Inspiration

Originally published in Panstadia magazine, Q3, 2015

Frei Otto died in March 2015 at the age of 89.

What is incredible, when considering his place amongst the truly great names in architecture and engineering, is not so much the contribution that he made in terms of creating a whole new language and form for buildings, but that he did it before the breathtaking breakthroughs in information technology and computer modelling which all of us now take for granted and which have so utterly transformed the world of the designer.

Just look at the roof of Olympiastadion in Munich.This stadium was originally built for the Olympics way back in 1972; an event so sadly marred and overshadowed by the attack that saw 11 athletes murdered by Black September terrorists.

Think, those of you who can remember, to what an architect’s office looked like, and was like, back then…

Drawing boards; ‘T’ Squares and Set-Squares; perhaps a few ‘drawing machines’ and ‘parallel motions’; the almost inevitable smell of stale ashtrays and, liberally scattered across the tables and plan-chests, a few slide-rules and those new fangled electronic calculators in wild abundance. And of course a good sprinkling of angle-poise lamps.

The point here is that when Frei Otto conceived his wonderful free-flowing forms, explored their natural beauty and potential, and developed their unique architecture in its purest simplicity, he was operating without the aid of modern computer aided drawing and calculation ‘support’.

Metaphorically, those light years ago, he was at the sharp edge of innovation in terms of the equipment available to him by today’s standards. Where we now can set up a complete, albeit, virtual model from which we can run ‘fly throughs’ that comprise a thousand, nay ten thousand images, every one of the renderings created within the studios of Frei Otto and Günter Behnisch was drawn by hand. Drawing was then a hugely expensive and time consuming process so this inevitably led to much less imagery being produced in order to explore and ‘settle’ form: the imagination simply had to work all the harder to fill in the gaps…..

Computer models now allow the designer to ‘travel ‘ around an architectural form in order to analyse it from every angle and incorporating the surrounding context within the virtual model allows the architect to assess how the proposal will relate to its setting.  Such processes also enable the architect to instantaneously understand how light and shadow interact both externally and within. Put simply computer technology has provided an invaluable tool for the rapid exploration of form and the pursuit of economic efficiencies.   

Frei Otto’s work, particularly at Munich, has had an immense impact on generations of the world’s finest architects, and through them on many of the world’s most impressive sports facilities. In this respect, if he didn’t actually change the course of architecture, he certainly opened up a complete new avenue in terms of genre. 

Quite simply, he is the father of the modern tensile structure……

But beyond this, his work has triggered another whole territory of exploration and that is the bolder and clearer use of structure. Some would agree that he was by instinct as much an engineer as an architect and in this respect stadiums – especially their roofs – offer immense opportunities for the use of structure, clearly visible and expressed in all its glory, as an architectural device for ordering and organising the building.

Building Services can be used in this way as well – for example the 5 pairs of enormous air shafts – bold and red – that run along the west side of the plaza outside the Pompidou Centre.

For too long, as we made the journey from load bearing structures to framed buildings, architects seemed to divest themselves of interest in structural elements and services: think of the wonderful ‘exhaust’ structures (chimneys!) that adorned our city roof structures of old. 

Otto Frei’s work not only broke completely new ground in terms of generating innovative architectural forms and language, he re-kindled interest in structure as a delightful ‘tool’ in the designer’s armoury.

In some ways it is sad that Otto Frei was not born 50 years later: he would have achieved even more with the tools and equipment that we take for granted today. Or put another way: what a pity the IT revolution didn’t come a few decades earlier…..