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
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!