Experiment zone: Frei Otto’s different research projects spread out on tables in the middle of the exhibition.

Frei Otto retrospektive
Successful spread of the burden

“Thinking by Modeling” is the title of the first major posthumous exhibition on the oeuvre of the architect Frei Otto, who died last year. Sadly, the show at Karlsruhe’s ZKM wallows too much in the archives of the great creator.
by Fabian Peters | 12/19/2016

Frei Otto was, if anything, a systematic planner. He would not have allowed a scheduling fiasco like that at the Elbphilharmonie or the new Berlin Airport to happen to him with his two most famous buildings, the German Pavilion at the Montreal Expo in 1967 and the roofs of the Olympic Stadium in Munich. In the case of the German Pavilion, the incredible number of 25,000 working hours was required to calculate all the measurements on the basis of the design models alone. The same process for the stadium required no less than double as much – in other words, more than the average annual working output of 30 people. Yet both projects were punctually up and ready on the opening days of the respective events.

Tents for a joyous Games

Frei Otto embodied West German post-War architecture like few others. His light tent and roof structures, very much his trademark and which he advanced throughout his life, were an appropriate symbol of the young country: democratic, anti-monumental, technologically cutting-edge. It was the transparent tent roofs created for Munich’s Olympic stadium with which West Germany chose to present itself to the world in 1972 and which became the symbol of the “joyous Games.” Yet we have Frei Otto’s tenacity and his intense work as a publicist advertising the “light load-bearing structures” to thank for the fact that his designs became more than ephemeral structures on trade fair grounds and exhibitions. His buildings “firmed up” in the course of the decades, even if they always retained their almost weightless feel. Nevertheless, many of his designs were created for events like the Federal Horticultural Show or for World Expos (two of them). Alongside Montreal, Otto also participated in Shigero Ban’s Japanese Pavilion at the Expo 2000 in Hanover. As a result, he did not bequeath us a long series of buildings. All the more shocking that his multipurpose hall created for the Federal Horticultural Show in Mannheim in 1975 is still threatened with demolition.

Models: The presentation in the form of a “model world” may be aesthetically pleasing but is not especially informative.

Frei Otto’s life ended with a big splash: In 2015 the award of the Pritzker Prize placed the then 89-year-old architect and developer firmly in the limelight, although his best-known works were by then already a few decades old. Frei Otto received the news of the distinction, but died before the official prize-giving ceremony. His estate is now housed with Südwestdeutsche Archiv für Architektur und Ingenieurbau (SAAI), which is attached to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. The reason for this is that about 18 months before his death, the archive teamed up with Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) to organize an exhibition on Otto’s lifework.

Measurement models as working tools

For some of Frei Otto’s most important designs, such as those for Munich and Montreal, the key working tools used were measurement models. At a time when the computer age was still in its infancy, they were the best way of exploring the load-bearing properties of Otto’s audaciously shaped roofs. Subsequently, the irregular shapes had to be copied from the models into drawings. Working with and on the models was also the most important method for the basic research that Frei Otto intensively conducted, first at his private “Entwicklungsstätte für Leichtbau” in Berlin and then from 1964 as the Director of the “Institut für Leichte Flächentragwerke” at TH Stuttgart (now Stuttgart University). So the Karlsruhe exhibition is more than justified in placing Otto’s “Thinking by Modeling” at the center of things – in a quite literal sense.

Various fields of research

The presentation focuses on 18 “wallpapering trestle tables” that apparently reference Frei Otto’s own desktops and lay out before us several of the fields in which he researched and experimented. Here, Otto’s systematic experiments using models are documented, for example using heaps of sand or soap bubbles, or his hanging rope-and-chain models used to conduct basic research into load-bearing properties. The lighting is handled beautifully here with pendant luminaires with extra-long cables that thus resemble the experimental suspended models displayed beneath them.

The second eye-catcher is the so-called “model world,” a table some 50 meters long on which a vast array of models are on show. These are arranged by scale. Design drawings along the edge of the table create the context for the individual models. The wealth of miniature masterpieces is truly a feast for the eyes. Here, the exhibition organizers were able to draw on the 400-plus models in the Otto estate at SAAI.

An open archive

The task of presenting the oeuvre is assigned to the “Open Archive” as it is called: 18 steel shelf structures that run round the four walls of the exhibition hall. In chronological sequence, the shelves shed light on the individual phases of his output, the work groups and the projects. On show are almost exclusively paper exhibits, above all countless photographs. The curators evidently feel sure that the images and objects are self-explanatory. Yet here I for one really wish that there was more information available. The most informative part of this exhibition section is old TV footage on Frei Otto shown on monitors on the shelves.

The exhibition is a mixed bag. Without doubt, the exhibition organizers offer a comprehensive overview of Frei Otto’s estate. The multitude of photographs and models on show is impressive. And in aesthetic terms, Marc Frohn’s exhibition architecture is compelling. The main shortcoming is that it does not succeed in taming the excess of material. Visitors are all too often left to their own devices when viewing the exhibits. The curators were evidently overly confident that we can draw our own conclusions about the images and models without needing explanatory texts to accompany the objects. Is the exhibition intended only for well-informed architects and engineers? Sadly, to date the gap can’t be filled by leafing through the catalog, either. It is not likely to be available until the beginning of January 2017. Such a scheduling fiasco would not have happened to Frei Otto.


Frei Otto – Thinking by Modeling

ZKM Karlsruhe
Lorenzstrasse 19
76135 Karlsruhe

Thru March 12, 2017

An outstanding architect: Frei Otto while preparing photographic documentation of a model.