He was the hero of groundbreaking lightweight architecture, inspiring everything from the Millennium Dome to pleasure-domes in Kazakhstan and service stations all over the world. But why didn’t Otto achieve the socially-driven dream he always hoped for?
What better way to go, just weeks before your 90th birthday, than to see the world’s most powerful company unveil a vast new HQ that owes everything to your work? The new Google campus proposed for Mountain View, California, by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, could come straight from the 1970s sketchbooks of groundbreaking German engineer and grand master of the big tent, Frei Otto, who died on Monday.
The news of his death became all the more poignant with the announcement that he was to be awarded the Pritzker Prize, the world’s highest accolade for architecture, later this year. Thankfully Otto had already learned of the news, which he greeted with characteristic modesty: “I have never done anything to gain this prize” he said. “I will use whatever time is left to me to keep doing what I have been doing, which is to help humanity.”
For a man who set out to “design new types of buildings to help poor people,” his work mainly became associated with the grand swooping gestures of expos and trade fairs, national statements of post-war optimism, wrought in taut skins and tensile wire. His stadium roof for the 1972 Munich Olympics was the pinnacle of his experiments with tensile structures, stretched to and fro like a series of dancing spider’s webs, hovering weightlessly above the arena and extruded out to cover the surrounding plaza in a great sweep. But the event was horrifically overshadowed by the murder of 11 Israeli athletes, leading critics to say that continuing with the Games was like “having a dance at Dachau”.