2005 - Frei Otto 1925 -


Designer: Gutbrod, Rolf (1910-1999); Otto, Frei (1925-)
Copyright: Michael Hodges/RIBA British Architectural Library Photographs Collection (1967)

The German engineer-architect (it should be that way round but such pieces are usually written by architects) has been the archetype for collaboration between the professions for half a century - in fact he is a one man collaboration in his own right.


He became an architect during a period of world recovery, when the scarcity of construction materials had to be replaced by ingenuity, imagination and invention.


During the 1950s Otto's interest in pre-stressed tensile systems of construction developed the tents that have made him famous: the bandstand at the 1955 Federal Garden Exhibition in Kassel, Germany, the entrance arch at the same exhibition in Cologne in 1957, both leading up the West German Pavilion at the Montreal Exposition in 1967 and the roofs over several of the sports structures at the 1972 Olympic Park in Munich.

Stadium, Olympic Park, Munich close-up of the seating with the canopies of acrylic glass stabilized by steel cables, 1972

Designer: Behnisch & Partner; Otto, Frei (1925-)
Copyright: RIBA Library Photographs Collection (1972)

Otto would be the first to acknowledge the inspiration, support and collaboration he has received from others. First Peter Stromeyer, the tent-maker who helped to deliver doubly curved tented forms. Also Ted Happold, then at Arups, with whom he won the competition for the conference centre at Mecca and who became a lifelong friend and collaborator. He also collaborated with architect Günter Behnisch on the Munich Olympics projects in 1972. A further collaboration with Ted Happold led to the double-layer gridshell at Mannheim that was intended to stand for one summer – it is now a listed building.


'He has always been one of my engineering and architectural heroes and has a genuine claim to be one of the real greats of the 20th century. I hope he will recognise this as the crowning glory of a truly outstanding and pioneering career'. George Ferguson

Much of Otto's work has been directed at creating the maximum from the minimum – nowadays described as the search for sustainability. The Japanese Pavilion for Expo 2000, in Hannover, with Shigeru Ban and Buro Happold, centred on these ideas – a paper tube gridshell with timber ladder arches and sandbox foundations designed to imprint itself on the spirit of visitors and to 'touch the ground lightly'.