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A Conversation with

Frei Otto

Juan MarĂ­a Songel

Princeton Architectural Press | New York



The Fundamentals of Future Architecture Frei Otto


A Conversation with Frei Otto


Frei Otto, Investigator of the Processes of Form Generation Juan MarĂ­a Songel


Illustration Credits

Running Head Title

Otto in his studio, Warmbronn, Stuttgart, Germany, 2004



A conversation between Frei Otto and Juan María Songel, held on June 7, 2004, in Frei Otto’s workshop-studio in Warmbronn (Stuttgart, Germany).

Out of the rich and wide variety of aspects and possibilities of analysis that your work and thought offers, I would like to focus on the methodological, experimental, and systematizing dimensions of your work. The classic historiography of modern architecture tends to place your work in the context of architecture with greater emphasis on technology, arriving at the start of high tech. However, I think that your historical contribution would fit better within the tradition of the pioneer engineers of new materials and their search for and reflection on the resistant form, as well as within the rationalizing approaches that characterized the origins of modern architecture in the 1920s. It is well known that you have had a close and productive relationship with engineers such as Fred Severud,1 Ove Arup,2 and Ted Happold.3 What did this relationship consist of and how did it influence your career? From 1952 to 1953 I had a close relationship with the German engineer and bridge builder Fritz Leonhardt, who has been described as practically being the inventor of television towers and with whom I did a lot of work. 4 It was only later that I began to work with Ove Arup and Ted Happold.

A Conversation with Frei Otto

How did you meet these engineers and how did your relationship with them start?

Well, the process was really rather simple: a project came up, some problems had to be resolved, and some contacts were established. In the case of Ove Arup, our collaboration started with our first project in Saudi Arabia (1965). 5 I simultaneously started to work with Ted Happold, who was then one of the directors of the department known as Structures 3 at Ove Arup’s studio, and this collaboration has lasted through time. Even today I collaborate with these three firms, although my closest friends, Arup, Happold, and Leonhardt, have passed away.

Which work or what occasion gave rise to the start of your collaboration with Fritz Leonhardt? It is a very strange story. I had studied in Berlin, and when I wrote my doctoral thesis I had already published a few things. 6 Having read one of my articles published in the magazine Bauwelt, the architect Erich Schelling, winner of the bid for the Schwarzwaldhalle auditorium in Karlsruhe, wrote asking me for help as a specialist. My professor of structures and director of my doctoral thesis, Hellmuth Bickenbach, advised me to contact Fritz Leonhardt. Ultimately, we didn’t carry out the work, because another engineer, Ulrich Finsterwalder, intervened, but, in reality, this building arose out of my work; that is, it all started with the Raleigh Arena, although the Karlsruhe auditorium was built



beforehand: the imitation came before the original product, a rather strange situation.7 That’s when I met Fritz Leonhardt. At the time, after having just recently finished my doctoral thesis, I collaborated with Stromeyer, a tent construction company, on the entrance arch for the Federal Garden Exposition of Cologne (1957). Since then we have collaborated on different projects. Afterwards the projects for Saudi Arabia arrived. The English engineers were better prepared, because Saudi Arabia had a historic relationship with England. Since Leonhardt didn’t consider himself an ideal candidate to work in that country, we carried out these works in collaboration with the English. The relationships with Ove Arup and Ted Happold arose out of that collaboration.

What relationship did you have with the most important engineers of the twentieth century? Eduardo Torroja: I had an epistolary relationship with him. He had studied my work a lot and invited me to a seminar that was held in Paris, which he couldn’t attend because he passed away beforehand, so I never met him personally. Of course I know his famous book Philosophy of Structures in its German version (Logik der Form). 8 With respect to the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures (IASS) that Torroja founded, I had a relationship with the association but never belonged to it because I was mainly concerned with membranes and this association

A Conversation with Frei Otto

was concerned with the study of shells; only later did it also focus on membranes. It was said back then that membranes were also shells; I didn’t agree, as they are two very different things: shells are shells, and membranes are membranes. Eugène Freyssinet: I didn’t know him personally, either. There was an epistolary exchange, especially between Leonhardt and Freyssinet, and of course I have studied his work. Bernard Laffaille: I had a very intense epistolary exchange with him, and I alluded to his first works in my doctoral thesis. Laffaille had already built his first metal sheets and his hanging roofs before he had that terrible reverse with the great shell structure of the Radio Europe No. 1 broadcasting station in Luxembourg, which ruined him. I think that he never mentally or emotionally recovered from this mishap. One of his children now writes me, because there are still people from his life that keep our relationship alive, but it wasn’t as intense as one would think. Robert le Ricolais: I met him in Philadelphia, with Louis I. Kahn, when I was teaching in the United States. 9 I knew his work and I think that we have mutually benefited from each other to a certain extent, but that’s it. Félix Candela: I met him in 1958, when I traveled to Mexico and he showed me his work. Fourteen days before his death he called and wanted to meet me in Paris for the exhibition L’Art de l’Ingénieur.10 Neither one of us saw the exhibit. He had fractured



the neck of his femur and was in a bad state of health when he called me. But I used to see him frequently, as he came to visit me at the institute and at the studio many times.11 He had some difficulties, because he didn’t get any jobs and couldn’t go back to his profession. I tried to help him, but it wasn’t possible for me, as I didn’t have any work either. Once I met him in Madrid— Candela was born in Spain and had to go into exile due to the Spanish civil war—and on a long trip he showed me the places linked to his childhood, to the city where he had been raised. Pier Luigi Nervi: I didn’t know him personally, although I knew his work. Many times I was, let’s say, his competitor, especially in the bid for the Kuwait Sports City, in which Pier Luigi Nervi, Félix

Otto (on the far left) with Félix Candela (on the far right)

A Conversation with Frei Otto

Candela, and the team made up of Kenzo Tange and me were invited to participate. We were working from Tokyo and ended up winning the bid. That was the only time I competed with Nervi so directly. I hold him in very high regard, but when you are invited to bid on a project like this and you are young, you try to outdo even an authority like him. Without a doubt, Nervi’s buildings are masterworks. Richard Buckminster Fuller: I knew his work and we saw each other for the first time in 1958, in St. Louis, when I was teaching at Washington University (later we met again at Southern Illinois University Carbondale). We had a long conversation, which at times became a heated but friendly discussion on wide-span

Otto (left) with Richard Buckminster Fuller



constructions, especially wide-span grid shells. Later he traveled frequently to Germany and came to visit me at the institute and we spoke about biology, especially ordinary biology and about the professor Johann-Gerhard Helmcke of the Technical University of Berlin. When he saw Helmcke’s works, especially the radiolarian and diatomic stereomicroscopic images, he stood up and wanted to grab them! It was very funny. He was amazed when he saw how animate nature was faster at inventing than he was. Eladio Dieste: Unfortunately, I didn’t meet him personally, although once a joint talk was planned at the Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio, Switzerland, coinciding with a joint publication on our work.12 However, the occasion didn’t arise. His work is magnificent, and I would have loved to meet him. Although his work was introduced very late in Europe, a former student of mine, Rainer Barthel, currently a professor at the Technical University in Munich, knew his work very well and disseminated it in Germany.

You have had a close relationship with Heinz Isler, isn’t that right? I have had a long relationship with Isler. He collected many of my developments and trials with models, but applied them specifically to building with reinforced concrete shell structures. He has also been very active in the Structural Morphology Group of the IASS.

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A Conversation with Frei Otto  

One of the twentieth century's most important design visionaries, German architect and structural engineer Frei Otto (b. 1925) made his mark...

A Conversation with Frei Otto  

One of the twentieth century's most important design visionaries, German architect and structural engineer Frei Otto (b. 1925) made his mark...

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