Frei Otto and Lightweight Construction

by Antonello Ferraro

Frei Otto. Das Gesamtwerk. Leicht bauen – Natürlich gestalten, A cura di Winfried Nerdinger Birkhäuser, Basel 2005 (pp. 400, € 78,00)

In 1950, a young German architecture student from the Technische Universität in Berlin decided to undertake an educational trip to the United States in order to acquaint himself first hand with the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Erich Mendelsohn and Mies van der Rohe. Formerly a pilot in the German Luftwaffe, he narrowly escaped the war. “Cities in flames seen from above are one of the toughest semesters for an architecture student!“ That young man was Frei Otto. He did not yet know that meeting Mies was going to be a revelation that would mark him for life. Most of all, he did not know that he himself would become one of the most brilliant interpreters of architecture in the second half of the 20th century.

Living proof of architects’ longevity (we are thinking of Ignazio Gardella, and also Philip Johnson), Frei Otto turned eighty on May 25th 2005 - a unique opportunity to fill a void and produce a monograph of his complete works. The book, published by Birkhäuser, is available in both German and English, edited by Winfried Nerdinger, a historian of architecture and the director of the Architecture Museum of Munich. This book is an apt homage to an audacious designer, shy and modest, yet very decided in standing by his ideas. One of these is based precisely on Mies’s “less is more” motto.

Otto has never abandoned this notion since that mythical encounter, and has always revealed itself to be a kind of monition. Otto’s predisposition to “take matter away”, to subtract weight, also has its origins in the fact that he belonged to a family of sculptors and was an apprentice sculptor in his youth. This brings to mind Italo Calvino and the first of his Lezioni Americane (Six memos for the Next Millennium), which speaks about lightness mentioning Lucretius: “The poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities - even the poetry of nothingness - issues from a poet who had no doubts about the physical reality of the world.” In the opinion of Oswald Mathias Ungers, contrary to his own intentions of surpassing nature with architecture, Frei Otto has constantly tried to understand the constructive laws of nature. Frei Otto’s interest in membranes, glass houses and transparency in general was complemented by his interest in partitions, walls and closed volumes.

His research and interdisciplinary approach to design are fathomed in a series of essays that make up the first part of the book. One of these is by Ulrich Kull on Otto’s relationship with biology and in particular his rapport with biologist and anthropologist Johann-Gerhard Helmcke, who founded the research group “Biologie und Bauen” (Biology and Building). Helmcke’s main principle was to “not transfer natural systems and forms into technology or architecture, but to identify and describe physical processes in living and non-living nature and technology.”

Eberhard Möller’s essay on the principle of Leichtbau (lightweight construction) explores another fundamental topic of Frei Otto’s work: “The shape of relatively lightweight constructions is rarely random. Rather it is the result of development processes and optimisation that follow the principle of reduction of mass. This is the principle that we call Leichtbau.”

How much material is really necessary for construction? Otto answers this question by quoting Bucky Fuller, who sustained that if you really wanted to know how economic a building was, in the sense of energy, you would have to be able to weigh it! This would bring us to the conclusion that the things we build could withstand the trials of nature (snow, wind and earthquakes) by using only one per cent, if not one per mill, of the materials habitually used.

Experimentation is obviously the only road possible to sustain such “audacious” suppositions – experimentation that makes constant use of models, up to a scale of 1:1! Many of these are carefully documented in the second half of the book (the part that features Otto’s projects) and illustrated by extraordinary photographs. Other noteworthy elements of this book are the vast reproduction of original drawings and sketches, and the wide-ranging bibliography on Frei Otto’s work and books.His first buildings were the result of his research on tensile structures. Most of them were destined to house temporary events, such as those for the Bundesgartenschau (federal garden exposition) in Kassel (1955), Cologne (1957) and Hamburg (1963).

These fixed tensile structures led to the first transformable roofs. Using the same suspension system of steel cables, combined with a motor-driven mobile mechanism, these devices gave added flexibility to the buildings in which they were used.The project for the experimental building that was to become the headquarters for the Institut für leichte Flächentragwerke (Institute for Lightweight Structures) was used as a prototype for the German pavilion at the International Exposition in Montreal (1967) made in collaboration with Rolf Gutbrod. It was made by the tent builder Stromeyer & Co from Constance, Germany. Critical acclaim on an international level came several years later with the Olympic Games in Munich (1972), when Otto designed large tensile structures for the tent roofs of the Stadium and Olympic Village (with Günter Behnisch).

The transparent roof, with its 60,000 square meters of translucent sheets of Plexiglas soon became the symbol of the Bavarian capital, besides being a metaphor of a democratic Germany showing the desire to redeem itself from the weight of its recent past. The international commissions that followed Otto’s constructions in Montreal and Munich, particularly those in the Middle East, became precursors of other equally successful results. The project for the Congressional Centre and Hotel in Mecca (1974) with Rolf Gutbrod, and that of the Diplomatic Club in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (1986) attest to his sensitivity for the buildings’ contexts, although he adds a highly expressive charge on the structural and formal levels.

Throughout his long career as an architect, engineer, researcher and inventor, Frei Otto has conceived many of his visions in the understanding that they are not utopian, even though they still only exist on paper. “Visionary fantasy is never utopian”, he says. Let us look, for instance, at his project/study for a pneumatic cupola for a city in the Arctic Circle (1971, in collaboration with Kenzo Tange and Ove Arup & Partners), where he brought to fruition his continuous research in the field of pneumatic constructions. Frei Otto is considered a pioneer, if not a founder, of so-called ecological architecture (Ökologisches Bauen). Sterile classifications aside, what counts is the extent of his innovations. Constructing with nature and not against nature has always been his main source of inspiration.

This signifies obtaining the best result using the smallest amount of resources (energy, materials and time). A paradigm of this way of thinking is represented by his poetic bird cages for the zoo Tierpark Hellabrunn of Munich (1978-1980). This is a manifesto of Otto’s style of sustainable architecture: a construction as light as the flight of the birds they are meant to house, without a beginning or an end. The final chapter (Hommage an Frei Otto), symbolically ends the book with commentary and memories by personalities such as Shigeru Ban (with whom Otto worked on the creation of the Japanese pavilion at the Expo 2000 in Hanover), Rob Krier (“Your buildings have the charm of improvisation, and their poetry is added to by the simplest and most minimal of technical means”) and Sir Norman Foster, who explains how Frei Otto’s detachment from all types of convention, his constant referral to the properties of lightness and his respect for nature make him a source of inspiration.

Antonello Ferraro Architect

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