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Research, development and daring – Frei Otto wins the Pritzker Prize

Frei Otto is considered a pioneer of lightweight construction. His philosophy, research and development led architecture along new paths after the Second World War and are still significant contributions today. In his work, Otto concentrated on light, natural constructions as well as research into form-finding and organic formation processes in order to create lightweight, mobile and adaptable architecture. He was particularly concerned with understanding nature and building with the available elements: earth, water, air. His internationally renowned ideas, which have been taken up and implemented around the world, are based on the development of membranes, rope nets, retractable roofs, shades, arches, grid shells, pneumatics and branching.

»We must think more, research more, develop, invent and dare…« This quotation from one of Frei Otto’s presentations in the 1980s describes the fundamental philosophy espoused by this extraordinary architect and researcher. In 1958, he established the Development Centre for Lightweight Construction, his private research institute in Berlin. Soon after, he opened the Institute for Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design in Stuttgart. Prominent colleagues such as Rolf Gutbrod, Fritz Leonhardt, Jörg Schlaich, Ove Arup and Ted Happold were often involved in Otto’s projects.

Otto himself spoke of the »many castles in the air and few actual buildings« he had created; nonetheless, it is structures such as the Munich Olympic Stadium, the Multihalle in Mannheim and the German Pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967 that we most associate with him.

For his outstanding achievements, Otto had already won the Royal Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Praemium Imperiale. This year, he is posthumously being awarded the Pritzker Prize. Unfortunately, Frei Otto will not be able to accept the prize himself, but he learned that he had won it before his death. This is the first time the Bronze Medal has ever been awarded to a deceased person. However, Otto was not concerned with winning prizes, but with building for people. 

Talent, vision and extraordinary accomplishments are the criteria behind the Pritzker Prize; nominees must also have made a consistent, meaningful contribution to humanity and built architecture. Winners from the past few years include Shigeru BanToyo ItoWang ShuSouto de MouraPeter Zumthor, Zaha Hadid and Philip Johnson.

The book Frei Otto – Researching, Building, Inspiring, written as homage to Otto on his 90th birthday and published in the DETAIL edition, provides insight into Otto’s work and depicts, among other things, his realized projects. Complemented by selected projects by various architects and engineers, it is clear just how much inspiration Frei Otto gave to modern architecture.

Video from February, 2015: Frei Otto as he is tought to receive the Pritzker Prize.

©2015 The Hyatt Foundation

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