Otto was born in Siegmar (since 1950 a part of Chemnitz). He studied architecture in Berlin before being drafted into the Luftwaffe as a fighter pilot in the last years of World War II. It is said that he was interned in a French POW camp and, with his aviation engineering training and lack of material and an urgent need for housing, began experimenting with tents for shelter. After the war he studied briefly in the United States and visited Erich Mendelsohn, Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra, and Frank Lloyd Wright. He began a private practice in Germany in 1952. His saddle-shaped cable-net music pavilion at the Bundesgartenschau (Federal Garden Exposition) in Kassel brought him his first significant attention. He earned a doctorate in tensioned constructions in 1954.
Otto is the world's leading authority on lightweight tensile and membrane structures, and has pioneered advances in structural mathematics and civil engineering. Otto's career bears a similarity to Buckminster Fuller's architectural experiments: both taught at Washington University in St. Louis in the late 1950s, both were architects of major pavilions at the Montreal Expo of 1967, both were concerned with space frames and structural efficiency, and both experimented with inflatable buildings. The work of both men go far beyond traditional methods of calculating structural stresses. His designs are regarded to have been heavily influenced by Australian architect Barry Patten, and his most famous design, the Myer Music Bowl (1959) in Melbourne.
Otto founded the famous Institute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart in 1964 and headed the institute until his retirement as university professor. Major works include the West German Pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967 and the roof of the 1972 Munich Olympic Arena, inspired by Vladimir Shukhov's architecture.
The International Architecture Symposium "Mensch und Raum" (Man and Space) at the Vienna University of Technology (Technische Universität Wien) in 1984 received in international attention. Otto participated, among others: Justus Dahinden, Dennis Sharp, Bruno Zevi, Jorge Glusberg, Otto Kapfinger, Paolo Soleri, Pierre Vago, Ernst Gisel, Ionel Schein.
Otto is still active as an architect and engineer, and as consultant to his protege Mahmoud Bodo Rasch for a number of projects in the Middle East. One of his more recent projects was his work with Shigeru Ban on the Japanese Pavilion at Expo 2000 with a roof structure made entirely of paper, and together with SL Rasch he designed a convertible roof for the Venezuelan Pavilion.
List of buildings
- 1967 - West Germany Pavilion at Expo 67 Montreal
- 1972 - Roof for Olympic Stadium, Munich
- 1985 - Tuwaiq Palace, Saudi Arabia, with Buro Happold
- 2000 - Roof structure of the Japanese Pavilion at Expo 2000, Hanover Germany (provided engineering assistance with Buro Happold and architectural collaboration with Shigeru Ban)
- 1974 Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture
- 1980 Honorary doctorate of science from the University of Bath
- 1996/7 Wolf Prize in Architecture
- 2005 RIBA Royal Gold Medal
- 2006 Praemium Imperiale in Architecture
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Frei Otto.|
- Conrad Roland: Frei Otto – Spannweiten. Ideen und Versuche zum Leichtbau. Ein Werkstattbericht von Conrad Roland. Ullstein, Berlin, Frankfurt/Main und Wien 1965.
- Winfried Nerdinger (Hrsg.): Frei Otto. Complete Works. Lightweight Construction – Natural Design. Birkhäuser Verlag für Architektur, Basel, Boston, Berlin, Architekturmuseum der Technischen Universität München 2005, ISBN 978-3-7643-7231-6
- Frei Otto, Bodo Rasch: Finding Form: Towards an Architecture of the Minimal, 1996, ISBN 3930698668
- Frei Otto's website: http://www.freiotto.com
- Frei Otto at the archINFORM database
- Japan Pavilion Expo 2000 – About the roof structure – Design Boom
- SL Rasch GmbH Homepage