Thinking by modelling

The book published by Spector Books brings to light the imagination of Frei Otto with a narrative told through contemporary and archive photographic images. #fridayreads

Georg Vrachliotis (curated by), Frei Otto. Thinking by modelling, Spector Books, Leipzig 2016, 250 pp.
Georg Vrachliotis (editor), Frei Otto. Thinking by modelling, Spector Books, Leipzig 2016, 250 pp.


A rectangular format, to be read vertically: height ÷ width = 1.5. Different papers: only black and white uncoated for the critical essays and archival extracts; patinated colour for the photographs of the models with optical leaps from close-ups of details to aerial views. All on a black background with white edges. The blacks, with their varying graphic textures, with the insets and extensions beyond the edges of the pages, design in thickness the cut of the book indicating the order in layered blocks of material that differs in content and form of presentation. The book is substantial and thick, but the outer cover, with its velvety blacks and whites, is without folds and wraps around it to support the softness of the body of the pages, making evident already at first glance the dual vocation: monograph and instrument of study. A rigid cover would have seemed out of keeping with the tensile structures of Frei Otto, that open and close the tactile and visual experience of the book with detailed plan-sequences of the models. 12+12 enlargements made bright by the silvery ink, introduce the key to understanding this book on Frei Otto: Thinking by Modelling, as a methodological unity between analysis, design, prototype and the production of spaces.


Edited by Georg Vrachiotis, with Joachim Kleinmanns, Martin Kunz and Philip Kurz, for Spector Books, the book arrives on the shelves with the exhibition already over, as if to offer a second look, a missing piece that, emancipated from the scenography of the architecture installed at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, brings to light the imagination of Frei Otto with a narrative told through contemporary and archive photographic images. The composition of the book is organised in three sections – Essays, Models, Projects – differentiated graphically in such a way as to favour a transversal reading of the material as an intrinsic experience in search of Frei Otto, in constant tension between material expansion and structural essence.

As in the exhibition, the central corpus of the book is the galaxy of models, that gives rise to a complex articulation of critical readings and design variants: a spatial skeleton floating between engineering and architecture to which are attached like satellites the individual construction components, for a design primer that is experienced in the modelling of “infinite” worlds of forms. Tents, metallic shells, suspended plates, pneumatic enclosures, molecular frameworks, multi-articulated arches, fluid structures, protean veils, spatial networks, latex domes, elastic towers, agglomerates of dwellings shaped like lunar landscapes, magnetic-ecological levitation ramps, mobile shells: these are some of the titles that frame the spatial models useful to the practice of design that here one can see the outcomes of concrete experiments that allow glimpses of further developments. In other words, nano-macrostructures for an operative aesthetic, Operative Aesthetics is the binomial used by Georg Vrachliotis as a title for his introductory essay on Frei Otto’s work.
Img.7 Georg Vrachliotis (editor), Frei Otto. Thinking by modelling, Spector Books, Leipzig 2016, 250 pp.
Img.7 Georg Vrachliotis (editor), Frei Otto. Thinking by modelling, Spector Books, Leipzig 2016, 250 pp.
The series of essays is introduced with four emblematic portraits of Frei Otto, where the model acts as a kaleidoscope for macro or micro spatial inventions to be tested with different body postures: that of the designer of forms that come out of sails in tension, that of the structural engineer that constructs and verifies stability on site, that of the theoretician who works in a team and finally that of the critic intent on using a camera and tripod to evaluate the space also through out of range visions.
The link between Frei Otto and ZKM, that already emerges in the use of media as a design tool in the exhibition, opens up in depth in the critical essays and in particular in the one by Vrachliotis where one finds traces of a common path in the multi-vision of arts. In his essay, Vrachliotis makes reference to Heinrich Klotz, founder of the museum of architecture in Frankfurt and ZKM, presenting an excerpt on Frei Otto from his Vision der Moderne (1986), written while he was engaged at the museum. Klotz highlights the connection between the lightweight structures of Frei Otto and the construction studies made in the New Building Movement by Le Corbusier and Gropius, identifying in structural engineering “another root of modernity”. Vrachliotis extends the historical horizon drawn by Klotz, considering a key aspect of Frei Otto’s work that is not yet adequately recognised by the critics, that he defines as the pioneer draftsman of a vision of space as a set of relationships. Following Vrachliotis: the type of tools and equipment that Frei Otto uses in their overall operational specificity, correlated with the technical, social and media practices, intrinsic to the systems of knowledge of relationships between things (Du mode d’existence des objects techniques, G. Simondon Paris 1958), form the indispensable base to conceiving a building as a product.
A concept that recurs in the last section of the book. The collection of projects begins, surprising the reader, with Student Research Projects: the beginnings of research that Frei Otto began in Berlin, a student of Hellmuth Bickenbach, Gerard Jobst and Hans Freese, and that he took up again after being imprisoned in France, between 1948 and 1952, already then moving between ecology and lightness of building construction. Backup-brick, perforated bricks, used as a weatherproof skin or envelope, writes the young Frei Otto for Baumeister. And between 1951/52, supported also by direct knowledge of the architecture of Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, Frei Otto sums up in the design of the high-rise shell, the idea of the space-product with its own life, determined by the relationship between the forms and materials that go to make it up and the use that it could have. This initial hypothesis of a housing block is a 12 storey block, of which the designer-building delivers only the skeleton, leaving the inhabitants free to organise their own space and relationship with the environment. A concept that in the combination of quality of life, privacy and nature, finds synthesis in the design of the Siedlung Waidmannslust, his diploma thesis in 1952. Waidmannslust, the lust of the hunter in the clearing that is distinguished from the hunter of the forest and the flaneur hunter of the city. In other words: natural light and more privacy that later emerges in the slogan “human settlements are human organisms but they are not hereditary”.
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