clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How Frei Otto Turned the Humble Tent Into Radical Architecture

German architect and structural engineer Frei Otto soared into public attention yesterday when he was awarded the Pritzker Prize just a day after he passed away in Germany. His life's work is rooted in something we've been familiar with and will continue to witness for a long time: the tent—or, the simple idea that a shelter can be erected from a piece of tensile enclosure, held up by a pole, and tied to the ground. Otto just managed to find a much greater potential for the tent as we knew it.

In this fascinating video from the BBC, English architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff explores the history and merits of the tent, from the early nomads who stretched the skin of a woolly mammoth over animal bones to yurts and makeshift shelters used in modern protests. But it was Otto who elevated the "tent" into large-scale, lightweight, and elegant membrane structures like the stadium he designed for the 1972 Munich Olympics (↑ and ↓).

Otto's segment starts at 11:18.

In his interview with Dyckhoff (seen in clip above), Otto describes his exploration of radical membranous architecture as an attempt to "remake Germany as a peaceful country" after World War II, during which he served as a fighter pilot before being captured as a prisoner of war. As Werner Sobek, Director of Otto's Institute of Lightweight Structures in Stuttgart, tells Dyckhoff, Otto's experience as a P.O.W.—during a period of total scarcity, with a lot of bearing on the looming scarcity of the present day—"told him that we should build with less material, thinness, lightness, and another realm of geometry."

In this case, it's the familiar tent structure, but rigorously deconstructed to find new possibilities. Otto famously played with soap bubbles to model new forms for membrane surfaces, an intriguing process you can watch in the video above. His investigation into these ethereal soap geometries were no doubt a far cry from the prevailing monumental blocky structures in Germany at the time. But as he told Dycoff, he was purposely trying to bring about a "new kind of thinking," which is "not to make stiff dwellings, but to make flexibility in structures."

As it happens, this sentiment sounds a lot like the rationale and mission behind the new Google HQ designed by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, which envisions a network of reconfigurable spaces under canopies that will regulate climate, pollution, and sound. It's no surprise then that the whole thing looks like a sort of high-tech, modern adaptation of the membrane tents. Otto's favorite structural form is as relevant as ever.


· Frei Otto Awarded the 2015 Pritzker Prize a Day After His Death [Curbed National]
· A First Look at the Massive Modular Greenhouse BIG and Heatherwick Dreamed Up for Google [Curbed National]