Stuttgart 21 is a railway and urban development project in Stuttgart, Germany that is still under construction. The project was officially announced by Frei Otto back in April of 1994, however the project has been halted and staled by cost concerns and debates over the relative benefits of having the railway system in the first place. The development is now slated for an operation date in 2023. It is considered the only ongoing Frei Otto project that still hasn’t been tied up. Although he was involved in the railways concept and initial design, since Otto’s death in 2015 the project will be completed by Otto’s old team in an act of solidarity. The concept aims to combine plans for high-speed links from Stuttgart to other cities in Germany while simultaneously replacing old and outdated railways.
Otto once said in 2003 that ‘the ground in the area is too unstable for large scale underground works’ leading to increased criticism surrounding the construction of the project. However, the project was approved in 2007 and construction began in 2010. If completed, the Stuttgart 21 would link all southern Germany into one large high speed railway system allowing for convenient transportation across the country. This project is noteworthy in particular to Frei Otto because it is unlike any of his other projects. Meaning that since the majority of Stuttgart 21 is underground, it would be impossible for Otto to use familiar lightweight and tensile structures to uphold the weight of the tunnel system. There are however, many planned skylights to still let in natural light as present in all of Otto’s designs, also newly planned outdoor train stations will have a lightweight metal and glass membrane enclosure reminiscence of the Munich stadium. If completed, Stuttgart 21 stands to be Frei Otto’s most permanent lasting legacy for an architect whose life’s work largely consisted of constructing temporary structures.
What was originally called the ‘Diplomatic Club’, the Tuwaiq Palace in Saudi Arabia was constructed to house state functions, receptions and official cultural festivals designed to raise awareness of the Saudis customs in the international community. The palace itself is located in Saudi Arabia’s capital city Riyadh with panoramic views over the Wadi Hanifeh. At the heart of Frei Otto’s inspiration for the palace was the intrinsic need for the physical protection of the environment lending to an ergonomic design populated with terraces, patios and caves enclosed along a central outer wall. The building itself blends into its surrounding landscape with the terraces and the main wall edges resembling the terraces of the valley, and its wavy central wall is reminiscent of the ravines that traverse nearby rocky plateaus creating wavy edges and cliffs.
Incorporated into the concrete and stone central building are three large white tents made of a fiberglass fabric coated with Teflon to help protect against the elements. The lightweight fabric portions of the palace make up for quite a bit of interior space, allowing room for a lobby, a store, a 200-person auditorium, and even a large restaurant capable of serving 300 people. Being a certified leisure center, Tuwaiq Palace is also big on amenities, including bowling lanes, a library, swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, fitness center, 30 guest rooms and several other restaurants to choose from. Tuwaiq Palace and its team of architects received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the buildings role in addressing the needs and aspirations of Islamic societies in fields of contemporary design, landscape design and improvement of the environment.
Originally built as a temporary structure for a horticultural exhibition in Mannheim, Germany in 1975, the Multihalle still stands to this day. In fact, it remains the world’s largest self-supporting timber grid shell structure in the world and has been listed as a historical cultural monument since 1998. Under a looming 102,000ft2 roof, sits a vast exhibition floor complete with the restaurant of the RuralCity exhibition. Otto’s inspiration for this project was Gridshells and how they can fit together while being rigid enough to support the deadweight of the structure. Before constructing the Multihalle, Otto ran through many scale models in order to understand the behavior of the grid he was working on while also envisioning ways to incorporate open space and light.
The Mannheim Multihalle is a significant achievement in that its unusual shape and large span, as well as for its innovative use of timber to create a complex and flexible lattice previously unrivaled in timber engineering. To withstand the massive compressive force being exerted, hemlock wood was used in the lattice work of the structure to ensure maximum flexibility and strength. The Gridshell itself derives its strength from a double curvature surface, and although it is no longer used, it is still structurally sound but in need of improvements. What I find most impressive about the Multihalle is its seemingly impossible rippled ceiling upheld by opposing forces, which makes it look as if the building is suspended in motion.
Arguably one of the most mind-blowing feats of Frei Otto, was his creation and collaboration on the construction of a massive pavilion made completely out of paper. The pavilion was envisioned to represent Japan at the Expo 2000, a conference held in Hannover, Germany. The theme of the conference that year was ‘the protection of the “environment”, which inspired a paper lantern structure whose materials could be recycled when it was dismantled at the end of the Expo. The main frame of the paper pavilion was constructed with custom made tubes of compacted recycled paper. The long tubes were then woven to form a lattice upon which thick curved paper could be attached to form the exterior of the building. It took three weeks for the woven framework of the roof to compress and push into a solid state to ensure it wouldn’t shift once set in place.
However, according to German building codes, Otto and designer Shigeru Ban could not construct a building solely out of compressed paper, therefore they were mandated to have a secondary wooden lattice supporting the compacted paper tubes. With a staggering length of 72 meters, it is surprising that a building of this magnitude could be supported and fixed to the Earth using lightweight paper tubes and thinly woven wooden framework. As an attempt to preserve the structure, five layers of fireproofing and waterproofing were applied to the cardboard and PVC tube membrane. Instead of using concrete for the foundation, Otto and Ban created a foundation consisting of boxed made of steel frames and lugs, filled with sand to allow for easy reuse later. At the end of the Expo, the whole building was broken down, recycled and reused.
Built for the 1972 Munich summer Olympics by Frei Otto and Gunther Behnisch, the main stadium roof and the surrounding structures are quite a sight to behold. Otto once commented, the suspended roof was set to imitate the ‘draping and rhythmic protrusions of the Swiss Alps’. Frei and Gunther were looking to create a stark contrast to the authoritarian looking buildings constructed for the prior Olympics held in Berlin in 1936, noting that they wanted the Munich games to be remembered as the happy Olympics.
The stadium itself sets in a crater left behind by the bombings of World War II allowing for Frei Otto to use a gravity based suspension system to support the vast network of suspended tensile structures. As the membranes in the structures move toward the main stadium, they are compressed as the gravitational force of the structure fades around the stadium in a semicircle. The crater aids in the suspension on the roof as it allows the weight of the roof to be anchored lower than the surrounding area, thus directing the force of the whole structure downwards. The entire structure is almost cloud-like and the dramatic shift in scales of coverage around each central pillar heightens the perception of the floating artificial landscape.
I believe Otto and Behnisch perfectly captured a sense of wonderment and joy in the lightweight construction of the stadium. The grounds at the Munich Olympics feel very airy and carefree as a result of the expansive open spaces coupled with the acrylic glass panels that adorn the structures exterior. Forty-four years after its completion, the Olympic stadium appears just as it did in 1972, a true testament to the high level of precision required to assemble one of the world’s foremost example of a complex structure working solely on the premise of tension.
Frei Paul Otto was born on May 31, 1925 in Siegmar, Germany. At an early age he studied general architecture for some time in Berlin before being drafted to be a fighter pilot in World War II. An observation Otto had while in the service was that there was a great need for barracks and shelters, but there was a debilitating lack of raw materials to construct these buildings. It was in this moment that the desire to create lightweight tensile and membrane structures was sparked within Otto as he solved the militaries lack of housing by beginning to experiment with tents and heavy duty canvas as shelter. The revelation that buildings can be lightweight but still serve a dutiful purpose inspired Otto to continue his education in architecture in the United States after the war.
Otto is world renowned for his advances in lightweight structures and pioneered many advances in structural mathematics as well as civil engineering. Later in his life, he founded an Institute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart in 1964. Once the institute was commissioned, Otto became a university professor and was the head of the institute. Until his death in 2015, Otto remained an active architect and engineer in locations such as the Middle East, Venezuela, and Japan. Posthumously, Otto was awarded the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize for helping poor people with very cheap living solutions using lightweight tensile and membrane structures.
About 100 years ago, a man decided he wanted to build a bank out in the badlands of Eastern Utah. However, the bank owner encountered a problem when the building company quoted him a large price to transfer the bricks a long distance through the maintains from Salt Lake. As a means of finding a loophole, the bank owner mailed the bank brick by brick to Vernal, Utah and save a fortune since at that point in time shipping prices were extremely low. This building is visually striking to me because of its scale and the 80,000 bricks that were mailed individually to build this imposing bank. I also enjoy the typical pillars around the door seen on most banks built in the 20th century. Knowing the backstory, this structure leaves me feeling impressed that a determined business owner would go to such great lengths for a vision when he could have easily used locally sourced materials instead. I view the Zion’s Bank in Vernal as a statement piece more than just simply a building.