In 1958 the leonine young German architect-engineer Frei Otto made a public attack on the new, American-funded Berlin Kongresshalle. The building’s clunky bivalve form meant it was already known as ‘the pregnant oyster’. On a public platform alongside the architect, Hugh Stubbins, Otto fumed that it was a cumbersome, essentially fraudulent structure: ‘Can a suspended roof be a symbol of free speech?’ In 1980 he might have enjoyed a moment of Schadenfreude when a ring beam collapsed and the Congress Hall had to be rebuilt.
By then Otto was the unchallenged master of the tensile and membrane structure. His elaborate and greatly admired German pavilion at the Montreal Expo of 1967 led on to the enormous complexity of the designs for the 1972 Munich Olympics in which a tented stadium spawned a complex tensile village around itself. Otto’s work was essentially impermanent, creating evanescent shapes that both fulfilled their engineering promise and delivered architectural and functional satisfaction. He took a sideways look at natural forms, most famously soap bubbles. There was something of Joseph Paxton in his approach, something of the Crystal Palace in his achievement.
Otto, the son of a sculptor, was drawn to the initial physical modelling of structures, the first of a sequence of models, increasing in scale and accuracy, with which he tested every notion to the limit. Computer modelling soon overtook those essentially tactile first steps. He had been the right man at the right moment.
Otto was a hugely admired figure across the fields of architecture and engineering. His influence (and often his involvement, even if at arm’s length) was immense, stretching from the Hajj Terminal in Jeddah to the Schlumberger Campus outside Cambridge to the Eden Project in Cornwall.
In 2005 Otto received the RIBA Gold Medal. He died on 9 March this year, at the age of 89. The next day he was given the Pritzker Prize, the biggest award of all, a global mark of esteem.