Tensile Canopies

A book review by Michael Webb

Few Pritzker Prizes have been more richly deserved than this year’s award to German architect-engineer Frei
Otto. Sadly, he died on the eve of the announcement, just shy of his 90th birthday. This modest, bilingual volume has the same spare economy as Otto’s tensile structures for Expo 1967 and the Munich Olympics, and it celebrates the inspiration and expertise he offered fellow architects. As the authors note: “He was the great Form Frei Otto coverpioneer of lightweight construction [as well as] sustainable, resource-saving and energy-efficient building decades before the significance of these subjects became a focus of public attention.”

In a brief introduction titled Architecture Nature, Otto writes: “Grateful to have survived the war unscathed, the wish to be useful to society was embedded in me right from the beginning of my professional life.” He built little, but his research (using biology as a point of departure) produced a stream of concepts, beginning with the tent shelters he designed as a prisoner of war. It’s ironic that the boy christened “Free” had to endure the Nazi era and compulsory service in the Luftwaffe before he could express himself freely, but he used his 70 years of study and practice to the full. His signature was the tensile roof and taut membrane, beginning with a music pavilion in Kassel in 1955. He drew on the latest technology as well as the spider’s web and other creations of nature, and he collaborated with finest engineers of his day to create work that, temporary or enduring, has a timeless strength and elegance. The highlights of his long and productive careeer are chronicled here.

Frei Otto; Irene Meissner & Eberhard Möller; Edition Detail, $48.

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