September 30, 2004
by Canadian Architect
The German architect and engineer, Frei Otto, whose pioneering tensile structures and grid shells inspired architects such as Richard Rogers, Michael Hopkins and Ted Cullinan, is the winner of one of the architecture’s most prestigious prizes, the Royal Gold Medal. Given in recognition of a lifetime’s work, the Royal Gold Medal is approved personally by Her Majesty the Queen and is given annually to a person or group of people whose influence on architecture has had a truly international effect.
Born in 1925 in Siegmar, the son and grandson of sculptors, Frei Otto had an early formative interest in flight and construction, spending hours making model aeroplanes. He served with the German Air Force as a pilot during the war. When taken prisoner he acted as architect for the prisoner of war camp where being in charge of building and repair with an acute shortage of materials led him to consider building with the least possible materials. His firsthand experience of the laws of aerodynamics and the principles of stretching membranes over light frameworks were to influence his later practice as an architect. After the war Otto studied at the Technical University in Berlin. During the 1950s Otto’s interest in pre-stressed tensile systems of construction developed the tents that have made him famous were to follow. He is responsible for the revival of the tent as a feature of modern architecture. In 1955 he tested for the first time his ideas on structures requiring a minimum of time, energy and cost, in practice. Frei Otto’s concern with functional minimalist structure links him to the Bauhaus, whilst his interest in the applications of modern technology and research into natural forms have made him one of the most influential German architects. Frei Otto was a visiting Professor at Washington, Yale, Berkeley, and Harvard universities, as well as at MIT. He also held a Professorship at the Technical University in Berlin where he himself studied at the beginning of his career. He has received many international awards and honours, and has published a variety of works on tensile and pneumatic structures.
The Jury for this year’s Royal Gold Medal was chaired by RIBA President George Ferguson and included Amanda Baillieu, Editor of RIBA Journal; Sir Jeremy Dixon, architect of the Royal Opera House London; Royal Gold Medallist Lady Patty Hopkins; engineer Tony Hunt; past RIBA President Michael Manser CBE; CABE Commissioner Sunand Prasad; and Sir Michael Wilford CBE.