Remembering a Champion of Roofing

Two weeks before receiving the coveted Pritzker Prize, a lifetime achievement award for architecture, German architect Frei Otto passed away. Mr. Otto designed the roof canopy for Olympiastadion, the innovative complex admired for its lightweight and strength. The Pritzker is regarded as the highest hope of all architects, not dissimilar to what the Pulitzer Prize is to literature, or the noble prize to physics. His ironic passing away two weeks before receiving the Pritzker is a testament to the irony, and transience of life.

Awarding Mr. Otto was delayed until he reached the age of 89, most likely because the panel was hesitant to award the Pritzker to a German architect that flourished amidst the devastation of WWII. Otto was an air force pilot in the Luftwaffe, and he was captured in Nuremberg, where he spent two years as a prisoner of war in France. During this time, the French noticed he had a peculiar genius for architecture and the mechanical arts; they employed him as a camp architect, often requiring his designs to utilize minimal materials.

After the war Mr. Otto returned to Berlin where he earned a doctorate in civil engineering. In stark contrast to the heavy columned buildings constructed by the Third Reich, Mr. Otto’s work emphasized light weight structures that were low cost and often temporary. This minimalistic, futuristic style, eventually became his contribution to architecture with the roof of Olympiastadion as his magnus opus.

Richard Rogers, a fellow architect and Pritzker laureate, commemorated Otto saying, “Frei Otto is one of the great architects and engineers of the 20th century. His work has inspired and influenced modern architecture, as we all learn to do more with less, and to trade monumental structures for economy, light and air.”

Mr. Otto died at 89 in Germany, and is succeeded by his children. He was one of the great forward thinking designers of our time.