Frei Otto HonAADipl 1925 – 2015

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  • April 14, 2015


It is with great sadness that we have heard news of the death on 9th March of Frei Otto, the co-designer of two of the buildings at Hooke Park and an immense and continuing inspiration for staff and students here. The further news that he has been named as the 2015 Pritzker Prize laurete adds further to the sense that we are privileged to be able to study, work, make, cook and eat in his only UK buildings.

The Guardian’s obituary mentions that Frei Otto worked “on a delightful workshop for the Parnham Trust School for Woodland Industries, at Hooke, Dorset. Built in 1989, the workshop’s sinuous vaulted structure was fabricated from stressed and exposed spruce thinnings, a case of nature working hand-in-branch with advanced structural design“.


In the memorial below, as published on the obituaries page of the main AA website, Richard Burton CBE of ABK remembers the architect and engineer Frei Otto and their collaborative work at Hooke Park.

Otto, who died earlier this month aged 89, had recently been awarded the Pritzker Prize and was world renowned for his tensile & membrane structures, especially the 1972 Munch Olympic Stadium. He was awarded an Honorary AA Diploma in 2003 and became an Honorary AA Member in 2011.

“The AA owns the only two permanent examples of Frei Otto’s work in the UK: the workshop and the prototype house (now used as a refectory) at Hooke Park. These were designed by Frei, his daughter architect Christina, Ted Happold, Michael Dickson and myself at ABK. The prototype house was built by Bill Moorwood of ABK in one of the wettest summers in 1986. The campus now run by the AA carries on the ethos of Frei’s work by running the 16 month Design & Make course in which students design and then build their designs.

When I started working with Frei on Hooke Park he sent the team a hand drawn report on how to build with thinnings (young saplings that are removed to let the main tress grow well). This knowledge was gleamed partly from Frei’s first professor in Berlin, whose experience was in the use of the thinnings in 1945, and partly from Frie’s ability to match his highly imaginative approach to design with a practical application of detail.

As the designs for Hooke progressed, the jointing up of thinnings became a key subject which Frei and Ted Happold argued and discussed over 6 weeks. The options were either a bound joint, Frei’s preference which was tested with 75% transmission of forces, and an epoxy joint which Ted had designed and tested with 90% transmission. The choice was finally settled following a good dinner between the three of us, at which it was agreed to use the epoxy joint. This was formed by making a conical hole in the circular end of the thinning and filling it with epoxy into which metal fixing were cast. This both high-tech and low-tech solution liberated the huge potential in the use of thinnings at a very low cost, and now that we have had it under use for nearly thirty years, we know it works.

I see this story as an example of Frei’s ability to collaborate with others, and especially with that superb engineer Ted Happold who he worked with on many of his buildings, particularly in the Middle East. But also his willingness to support high tech solutions, and to use materials to their maximum potential, a principle he learned as a prisoner of war at 19 years old, when he was in charge of buildings in a vast POW camp in France.

The designs for Hooke Park vitally depended on the use of models, an essential in the process of design according to Frei, all of which are now preserved at Frei’s exhibition of models in Karlsruhe.

Frei was a practical designer with a vigorous imagination and a fine aesthetic sense. A genius who collaborated with other designers. Working with him was for me one of the best collaborations in my professional life and led onto a friendship I will miss.

It is fitting that the AA should now be a custodian of his work here in the UK.”

Image: Protoype House with (l-r) Richard Burton, John Makepeace and Frei Otto. Courtesy of the AA Photo Library