Frei Otto | icon 023 | May 2005

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photo: John Hopper photo: Richard Bryant/Arcaid

words Justin McGuirk

“I never wanted to be a hero,” says Frei Otto. The 79-year-old German architect and engineer has been called the Brunel of the 20th century.

His work has influenced a whole generation of architects, particularly in Britain, where Rogers, Grimshaw, Cullinan, Hopkins and Jiricna all owe him a huge debt. He is reticent about his contribution to architecture, although he denies that this is modesty. “I like to see clearly – not modestly, not overwhelmed but clearly.”

Otto is sitting very close to me and his eyes are pointed at me but I have the strange impression that he can’t actually see me. Only later do I discover how short-sighted he is, a handicap that he disguises well, not least because his other faculties are so sharp. He is recalling his dinner the previous evening, a gala affair at the Royal Institute of British Architects, where he was presented the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, one of the profession’s highest accolades. The occasion, which included the performance of a piece of music composed in Otto’s honour, seems to have touched him deeply but not diminished any of his scientific detachment, nor permeated the Confucian air of reasonableness that attends everything he says.

“Most architects think in drawings, or did think in drawings; today they think on the computer monitor. I always tried to think three dimensionally. The interior eye of the brain should be not flat but three dimensional so that everything is an object in space. We are not living in a two-dimensional world.” Otto speaks slowly and deliberately and, though he sounds unmistakably Teutonic, he is so articulate that it is easy to forget he is not speaking his own language.

As well as an architect, engineer and inventor, Otto also likes to think of himself as a natural scientist and experimental physicist. He is most famous for his lightweight structures. Buildings like the German Pavilion for the Montreal Expo in 1967 seemed to promise a new and elegant order of architecture defined by technical ingenuity and material efficiency. Others, like his exhibition hall in Mannheim, prefigured by two decades the computer-generated, morphological architecture favoured by today’s avant-garde. Whether they followed the principles of tents, umbrellas or soap bubbles, whether they were gridshell or pneumatic structures, Otto’s buildings offered a glimpse of how the man-made landscape might be redefined, not only aesthetically but in its sustainability.

However, Otto’s imagination has more often than not produced what might be called “exhibition architecture”. His most famous works are pavilions, Expo halls, a stadium roof, an aviary, all of which occupy privileged and experimental spaces at one remove from their cities. In some ways he has been working in a vacuum, insulated from social issues and the problems of urban context that are the stuff of architecture. Yet he says: “I feel that I am an architect, not an engineer.”

“He’s an extraordinary brain,” says Eva Jiricna, who remembers buying his first book as a student in 1965. “I’m not saying an architect because I don’t think the merit of his work is in architecture – the merit is in experimentation. He was doing things that in that time were not [considered] possible.” Today, tensile structures, gridshells and the notion of using the least possible materials are commonplace, but in the pre-computer age they were revolutionary. “Now it is a matter of course,” adds Jiricna. “There’s a computer programme that any technical engineer can apply.”

The way we perceive Otto today belies his beginnings. The master of the lightweight structure started out as an apprentice stone mason. After the war – in which, as a pilot, he was shot down and imprisoned in a PoW camp – he designed a social housing estate that, although only intended to last 30 years, is now a listed monument. Otto’s subsequent experimental design is very much the product of post-war frugality, when resources, both material and financial, were scarce. But while that era may have forged some of his guiding principles, he looks back on its social housing experiments and cheap modernism with disappointment. “My generation had a big task after the war and of course we thought we could do it better. Today, 60 years [later], we can’t be proud of what we have done. But we tried; we tried to go a new way.”

Otto went a unique way. In the mid 1950s he drew attention to himself with a series of small tent structures, most notably the dancing pavilion for the federal garden show in Cologne. The pavilion – commissioned to last a year but, again, still standing – spurred a wave of much more ambitious tensile structures through the 1960s, including the pavilion in Montreal, and led eventually to his favourite work, the aviary for Munich Zoo, which is made of suspended steel mesh and is as diaphanous a building as one can imagine. His system of suspending membranes from flying masts culminated in a stadium roof for the 1972 Munich Olympics. But as a model it never really took off. Richard Rogers’ fabric-based version for the Millennium Dome in London was both a late revival of it and possibly its death.

“It was only a small part of my work to stimulate hanging structures,” Otto points out. He developed an alternative system of gridshell structures that followed the same principles of elegance and structural lightness. Most recently demonstrated in a building designed with Shigeru Ban, the Japanese Pavilion at the 2000 Hanover Expo, the system has the potential to cover vast areas. In the 1970s, Otto devised a pneumatic dome that was to span 2km over an Arctic city, but it was never built and he is now suspicious of such grandiose gestures. Unlike Buckminster Fuller, who playfully imagined a dome over Manhattan, Otto has seen beyond the temptation to push his inventions to their logical limits.

“Maybe you know that I was a close friend of Bucky Fuller, and we debated the idea of large domes. But why should we build very large spaces when they are not necessary? We can build houses which are two or three kilometres high and we can design halls spanning several kilometres and covering a whole city but we have to ask what does it really make? What does society really need?”

Despite a career-long emphasis on technical and formal innovation, Otto sees this question as at the heart of his work. Which, for all the adulation that he receives, lends him a slightly tragic quality. It is as if he, the magus of structural experimentation, the man with keys to the superstructure kingdom, has seen the limits of his craft and yearns for a way to be more useful. This is a sensitivity that appears to have escaped his High-Tech progeny. When Richard Rogers proposes a “glass wave” to cover London’s South Bank, or when Norman Foster designs a roof for an entire cultural district in Hong Kong, do they have society’s best interests at heart?

The real applications of Otto’s work have probably not yet been realised. When he describes himself as a natural scientist it is because he envisages a future when society and nature are not quite so in conflict.

“Everything man is doing in architecture is to try to go against nature,” he says. “The idea to be a part of nature is a brand new idea of the last century. Of course we have to understand nature to know how far we have to go against nature. The secret, I think, of the future is not doing too much. All architects have the tendency to do too much.”

In 1960 Otto set up a biological research unit to study natural structures. Drawing inspiration from plant cells, bubbles and other organic forms, the unit developed a system of shell structures whose skins are inflated with air. Nicholas Grimshaw used this pneumatic system for the domes of the Eden Project. The fact that they protect an ecological environment provides a reassuring metaphor for the kind of future that Otto likes to see his architecture leading towards. “Using air as a building material means that the amount of material you need is very minimal so you can dedicate your forces to the relation between animals and man, and man and plants, and make an environment which is in equilibrium.”

Otto’s ruminations are unquestionably sage – the challenge is always to bring the conversation back to specifics. Where, specifically, is architecture failing society?

“Infrastructure and housing. Housing is the most complex thing you [can imagine]. The big mistake – we call them mistakes but they are events of their time – was housing in socialist times. Even our country, after the war, had the social housing programme, just as in the US and England. People sit down and make the programme and all houses in the whole country will be built after this programme, but then for all houses the architects don’t know their inhabitants. They are building for an unknown society.”

Apart from that first social housing scheme after the war, Otto’s own buildings have not exactly addressed societal problems. Although there is one other exception. In the 1980s he built an ecological housing project in Berlin in which each unit was unique. It may not be remarkable technologically, but it demonstrates his desire to humanise architecture with highly tailored buildings, one that is slightly at odds with the vast but non-specific potential of his structural systems. Despite the success of the eco-housing, Otto has not built any more. “We are not so lucky to convince the politicians,” he says. However, he has started masterplanning. He is developing a plan for Neuss, near Cologne in Germany, and is a consultant for an infrastructure scheme in Mecca. “This is the most difficult infrastructure planning ever done in the world. How two million – and in the future five million – people can go to Mecca and pray.”

At this point Otto is given a gentle reminder that time is short. He and his wife and daughter are off to the British Museum to see Norman Foster’s Great Court roof – a suitably Otto-esque achievement. The photographer only has 20 minutes to take some portraits. Otto the man is sympathetic; Otto the scientist sees instantly the waste of a precious resource. “Why does he need 20 minutes for pictures? Pictures are a matter of hundredths of a second.”

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