From Stadiums To Shelters: Remembering Pritzker Winner Frei Otto

Mar 11, 2015
Originally published on March 11, 2015 10:40 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The German architect Frei Otto has been named the 2015 winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize. The announcement was made nearly two weeks early because Mr. Otto died on Monday - he was 89. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has this profile.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Frei Otto was best known for designing the stadium roof canopies for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. His work was admired for its lightness and strength.

RICHARD ROGERS: He was an inventor - a truly radical inventor.

DEL BARCO: Architect Richard Rogers is a former Pritzker Prize winner and was on the jury that selected Otto for this year's prize.

ROGERS: He wasn't your normal engineer. He was one of a handful of the great 20th century creators of architecture - of shelter, shall we say - maybe shelter's the best word.

DEL BARCO: Rogers says Otto founded several research institutes collaborating with biologists, engineers and naturalists to build structures out of steel, wire, cables and textiles.

ROGERS: He did a massive amount of research on sustainable structures - way before sustainability was sort of a common word, shall we say. He did sort of the most with the least.

DEL BARCO: That's something Frei Otto learned as a young German soldier during World War II. He spent two years in a French prisoner-of-war camp where he learned to build shelters with whatever material was around. Later in his career, he looked to the structures in nature for his designs that resembled webs and nests.

ELENA MANFERDINI: That comes from his attention to observing other fields of science, for sure.

DEL BARCO: Elena Manferdini is a professor at the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

MANFERDINI: There is a fragility and a very big strength in the projects - technical and poetic at the same time. You can see through them, you can really understand how the forces run through the surfaces he was making.

DEL BARCO: Frei Otto also designed lightweight and sometimes temporary tents and buildings for poor people living through natural disasters - again, using material that would make a minimal impact on the environment. In an upcoming documentary about Otto, the architect describes his work this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FREI OTTO: SPANNING THE FUTURE")

FREI OTTO: My architecture is the architecture of survival.

DEL BARCO: When he learned he would be awarded the Pritzker Prize, Otto told the committee he was happy but winning was not the point of his work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OTTO: We have big, big problems - flooding, earthquake and many foolish things which now people are doing - I mean, these self-made catastrophes. We are able to give to every man on the street the possibilities to help himself. And to fight for this was one of my duties.

DEL BARCO: Frei Otto will be honored posthumously at a Pritzker ceremony in May. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.