The lightness of being Frei Otto

Being an architectural journalist is scarcely like being in a war zone or an old-fashioned doorstepping reporter. But occasionally one does have to intrude in people’s lives, and when one does it can be uncomfortable

Being an architectural journalist is scarcely like being in a war zone or an old-fashioned doorstepping reporter. But occasionally one does have to intrude in people’s lives, and when one does it can be uncomfortable.

For me one of those moments came in 1996 with the death of Ted Happold, pioneering engineer and founder of Buro Happold. The AJ wanted to contact as many people as possible to compile an appreciation and I was tasked with calling Happold’s long-time friend and collaborator, Frei Otto. This was pre-internet and news did not travel instantly. To my discomfort I discovered that I was actually breaking the news to Frei Otto.

Happold’s death was not a surprise, as he had been ill for some time, and Frei Otto was saddened rather than shocked and rapidly pulled himself together to say some wise and kind things about his old friend. But it was an uncomfortable moment.

Now Frei Otto has died as well, poignantly just before he was due to receive the Pritzker Prize. There is a nice piece about him in the Guardian, illustrated of course with a picture of his 1972 Munich Olympic stadium.

The design still looks remarkably modern today and is much better known than Otto’s face, fittingly for a modest man. The Guardian piece discusses whether the engineer really achieved his aim of making life better for people (spoiler alert – certainly not in the way that he hoped). But how many people do realise their grand ambitions? It is still good to have them, and Frei Otto’s legacy will at least have been to have influenced a generation of architects and architecture, leaving behind a series of buildings designed by him or those that followed that raise our spirits and make us think of economy of materials.

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