In November 2016, the ZKM – Zentrum fuer Kunst und Medien – Centre for Arts and Media – in Karlsruhe, Germany, inaugurated its exhibition on the works of Frei Otto entitled “Frei Otto – Thinking by Modeling” (November 05, 2016 – March 12, 2017): an exhibition unprecedented in terms of conception and extent, curated by Prof. Georg Vrachliotis. In the year before, Frei Otto had passed away, while in the same year he had been awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize for architecture. As a result, the attention of architects, engineers and designers worldwide has been refocused on the personality, the works and the achievements of Frei Otto. The opening of the exhibition was widely picked up, attracted a lot of visitors and comes along with several “special events”, one of them being a symposium which will be held on January 26-27, 2017.
The works of Frei Otto and his research teams play an active role in current design of architecture and engineering. They are often referred to when lightweight structures or bionically inspired designs are discussed. The current attention on Frei Otto,his insights and merits should be interpreted as contributions to our heritage, prospect and responsibility. His exclamation “Stop building the way you build!“, formulated during a lecture in 1977 , is still reverberating. This outcry can be taken as an inspiration for many disciplines, be it architecture, engineering, biology or social sciences.
Frei Otto and the Institute of Lightweight Structures in Stuttgart
The establishment of the “Institute of Lightweight Structures” at the University of Stuttgart, Germany, was a starting point to a “time line” of lightweight structures at this location. Fritz Leonhardt called Frei Otto, who was at that time living and working in Berlin, to Stuttgart University. Fritz Leonhardt (1909 – 1999) was the designer of the Stuttgart television tower which was the first of its kind being constructed in reinforced concrete, the author of books dealing with “aesthetics” of bridges, and pioneer in the field of designing structures in reinforced concrete. Leonhardt had published his thoughts about lightweight structures as a “demand of our times” in 1940 , a time facing material scarcity during a devastating war which had been triggered by Nazi-influenced Germany. The lack of material, or the restriction to a certain kind of material, can be taken as a source of inspiration for lightweight construction: Eladio Dieste, Felix Candela and Robert Maillart developed their unique aesthetics by this kind of limitation. Fritz Leonhardt was aware of this special quality and in that spirit he called Frei Otto to be Professor at the the Institute of Lighweight Structures IL at Stuttgart University.
During this time, Frei Otto was dealing with the detailed design of the German pavilion for the Expo Montreal in 1967, a piece of architecture which was path breaking in many ways. A test building of the Expo roof, prototype of a cable net structure, was to become the place of location of the IL.
Joerg Schlaich was the successor of Fritz Leonhardt as Professor at the University of Stuttgart. Werner Sobek assumed the chair of Frei Otto at the Institute of Lightweight Structures in 1994. In 2001, he was additionally appointed as successor to Joerg Schlaich’s Chair. The two chairs were merged to become the “Institute of Lightweight Structures and Conceptual Design” ILEK. In 2015, Werner Sobek was awarded the “Fritz Leonhardt Prize”, a distinction awarded every three years to an engineer in recognition of outstanding contributions to the area of structural engineering. In a very emotional speech, Sobek stated his view of the necessity of lightweight structures, based on very descriptive and startling numbers .
The circle is closing: the need for lightweight structures, be they named material-efficient or low-carbon-footprint, is even more relevant in the beginning of the 21st century. Frei Otto initiated a center of knowledge which reached out to the world.
“Thinking by Modeling” – the exhibition
The exhibition is set up in two large-scaled rooms of the “ZKM” (Zentrum fuer Kunst und Medien – Center for Arts and Media) museum in Karlsruhe. The building itself was originally built as a munition factory and is a protected monument with classical elements of industrial architecture. It hosts the ZKM since 1997.
The city of Karlsruhe is also the location of the “saai” (Suedwestdeutsches Archiv für Architektur und Ingenieurbau – Southwest German Archive of Architecture and Engineering), where Frei Otto’s works have been archived after his passing away.
Due to the initiative of Prof. Georg Vrachliotis, Professor at the KIT Karlsruhe, this impressive exhibition has been realized.
The exhibition is constituted by four elements: model landscape, open archive, cosmos, and projection.