Earlier this year, German architect Frei Otto became part of a very exclusive club. The 89-year-old was visited at his home and studio in Warmbronn by Pritzker Prize executive director Martha Thorne, who informed him that he had been chosen as the 40th Pritzker Prize laureate. The visit was secret and part of an annual process that typically happens in January or February, but isn't announced until March or April. The Chicago-based Hyatt Foundation, which sponsors the award that is often called architecture's version of the Nobel Prize, had previously revealed that this year's winner would be publicly named on March 23.
Sadly, Otto passed away on this past Monday, March 9, and the Pritzker's jurors and sponsors were presented with a dilemma. The Pritzker Prize, unlike other significant awards such as the AIA Gold Medal, has always been reserved for a living architect. Dispensing with the schedule, the announcement was made on Tuesday, March 10, with barely an hour's advance notice to the press, setting in motion a avalanche of frantic deadline-driven activity by the world's architectural writers.
The son and grandson of sculptors, Otto was born in Siegmar, Germany, in 1925. He grew up in Berlin and worked as a stonemason's apprentice during school holidays, eventually planning to enter architecture school in 1943. But he was conscripted by the Nazis and was eventually captured by Allied Forces as the war ended in April 1945. He spent two years as a prisoner of war in a camp near Chartres, France, where he learned how to build with an economy of materials. Returning to Berlin in 1948, Otto studied architecture at the Technical University there. He studied contemporary American architecture on a study trip to the United States in 1950 before opening his Berlin office in 1952. His doctorate in civil engineering was secured from the Technical University of Berlin in 1954 with a dissertation titled, "The Suspended Roof, Form and Structure."
Lightweight structures—economical, ecological, and subject to the strict rules of physics—were Otto's primary contribution to architecture and engineering. He developed them over the course of more than half a century of inquiry, utilizing an illustrious list of collaborators to help in their realization. Otto's earliest international recognition came as the designer of the German Pavilion at the Expo 67 world's fair in Montreal.
But the most important of his works was surely the memorable tensile structures he created (with Behnisch & Partner and others) for the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich. The diaphanous forms that floated over a series of contiguous structures including the main stadium and the other main facilities stood as a statement of his career's research interests—and as a stark contrast to Germany's previous Olympics venue, the heavy neoclassical stadium created by Albert Speer for the 1936 Berlin Games held during Otto's youth in the city.
He explored many materials that fit his agenda, including bamboo, wood, and even air as a structural material. He collaborated with eventual fellow Pritzker Prize laureate Shigeru Ban, Hon. FAIA, to design the Japanese pavilion at the 2000 Hannover Expo in Germany. Otto was a full professor at the University of Stuttgart from 1964 to 1991, and he taught extensively as a visiting professor elsewhere.
The 2015 Pritzker Prize is just the last of the major awards that Otto was scheduled to receive while still alive, having been awarded the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 2005 and the Japan Art Association's Praemium Imperiale in Architecture in 2006.
The 2015 Pritzker Prize will be presented posthumously at a ceremony in Miami on May 15.