Frei Otto



The Structure of Vagueness

by Lars Spuybroek


Around the beginning of the 1990s, Frei Otto and his team at the Institute for Lightweight Structures in Stuttgart studied what they called “optimized path systems.” Previously, similar to the chain modeling technique Gaudí used for the Sagrada Familia, they had experimented with material systems for calculating form. Each of these material machines was devised so that, through numerous interactions among its elements over a certain time span, the machine restruc- tures, or as Frei Otto says, “finds (a) form.” Most of them consist of materials that process forces by transformation, which is a special form of analog com- puting. Since the materials function as “agents,” it is essential that they have a certain flexibility, a certain amount of freedom to act. It is also essential howev- er, that this freedom is limited to a certain degree set by the structure of the machine itself.

The material interactions frequently result in a geometry that is based on complex material behaviour of elasticity and variability. Sand, balloons, paper, soap film (including the famous minimal surfaces for the Munich Olympic Stadium), soap bubbles, glue, varnish, and the ones I will be referring to here: the wool-thread machines. This last tech- nique was used to calculate the shape of two-dimensional city patterns, but also of three-dimensional cancellous bone structure or branching column systems. They are all similar vectorized systems that economize on the number of paths, meaning they share a geometry of merging and bifurcating.



Wool Thread Experiments | Frei Otto + The Institute for Lightweight Structures







Video: Frei Otto Experimenting with Soap Bubbles

15 March, 2015 by 

Translated by Katie Watkins




“The computer can only calculate what is already conceptually inside of it; you can only find what you look for in computers. Nevertheless, you can find what you haven’t searched for with free experimentation.” – From A Conversation with Frei Otto, by Juan Maria Songel


For Frei Otto, experimentation with models and maquettes was a fundamental part of his work as an architect. In 1961, he began to conduct a series of experiments with soap bubbles (featured in the video above). His experiments centered on suspending soap film and dropping a looped string into it to form a perfect circle. By then trying to pull the string out a minimal surface was created. It was these created surfaces that Otto experimented with.

Through these types of experimentation he was able to build forms and structures that were previously believed to be impossible. “Now it can be calculated, but for more than 40 years it was impossible to calculate it. I have not waited for it to be calculated in order to build it.”



Skeletons, Soap Bubbles and Spider Webs

 Insight, 27. March 2015

…After the rigid, weighty formalism of the Third Reich, post-war architecture in West Germany strove above all for lightness and openness, transparency and elegance. More than any other German architect, Frei Otto embodies this endeavor to create lightweight structures that, being derived from nature, make efficient use of materials – designs that are both stunningly beautiful and functional. His work was soon given labels such as “organic”, “Gothic” and “democratic.”

His first name, Frei, which also means “free,” matched his thinking. For him, an architect was simultaneously an explorer, an inventor, an engineer, a humanist and, above all, an interdisciplinary team-worker. Otto’s designs are all the product of collaboration. He worked with Rob Krier, Günther Behnisch, Christoph Ingenhoven and Shigeru Ban – some of the most interesting architects of the twentieth century. It says a lot for Otto that he engaged with the work of such very different architects and cooperated with them so successfully. He referred to himself as a “source of ideas” who “has built little and instead devises ‘castles in the air’” – an understatement if ever there was one.

…His designs, which followed the principle of “do more with less,” were simultaneously experimental, original and unprecedented. Otto’s sophisticated and almost sculptural lightweight structures, using cable nets, lattice shells, or other tensile constructions, made him one of the most important architects and engineers of the twentieth century. His thinking harmonized structural engineering with spatial composition in a way equaled only by Richard Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s and Santiago Calatrava today. Frei Otto was mostly inspired by natural phenomena such as skeletons, spider webs and bubbles – his works express both lightness and stability, fusing architecture with landscape, wall with ceiling, and interior with exterior.



German Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal (Photo: Burkhardt)



Working model of light scoops for the main station Stuttgart (Photo: saai)









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