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Frei Otto
Eightieth Birthday Appreciation
by Norman Foster


Frei Otto is barely half a generation older than me. But given the age into which he was born those ten years make a considerable difference. Whereas in my youth I made models of classic fighter aircraft, Frei Otto spent his late teens as a pilot actually flying them in action. In looking back at his career, there is a similar sense that he has remained one step ahead of most of us.

It is perhaps his enduring love of flight that has guided his approach to architecture. His has always been an architectural vocabulary inspired by lightness. This is apparent from his earliest works. The bandstand he designed in 1955 in Kassel, for example, or the wonderful shelter pavilion at Cologne's garden exhibition two years later, demonstrated an extraordinary sense of architectural daring. They showed that architecture need not be burdened by the weight of its own traditions but could instead be free to express itself through a succession of simple but innovative sculptural forms.

This sense of weightlessness and of an architecture unbound by convention is carried over into Frei Otto's working relationships. Rather than working in isolation, he has consistently advocated a freer role for the architect - whether this has been as an educator, sharing his ideas with generations of students, or in practice, through valued joint projects with, or providing research support for, other architects and engineers. For me, he reinforces the point that architecture is a fundamentally collaborative exercise. In these collaborations, it is typically Frei's curiosity and desire to understand and resolve a particular problem that shines through. The resulting buildings, such as the structural ingenuity of his Montreal Pavilion, the incredible landscape of the Munich Olympic Stadium roof, or his visionary Arctic City Envelope project have become touchstones for the kind of architecture that we would all like to produce.

He was a step ahead in pioneering computer-based procedures to determine the shape and behaviour of complex tensile shapes; and he was equally far sighted in seeking structural lessons from biological structures and grid shells. Significantly, over the years, the lightweight tensile structures that he has consistently and so evocatively advocated have achieved greater and greater relevance. In their fundamental structural economy, in their ability to do 'more with less', and in their constant reference to a harmony between buildings and nature, Frei Otto's architectural innovations have established a template for environmentally sensitive design. As much, then, as his extraordinary sequence of works altered the nature of architectural form in the twentieth century, his environmentalism, intelligence, and foresight have established the defining architectural mentality for the twenty-first. He is an inspiration.

Happy birthday Frei!