Frei Otto’s Pritzker: Shhh!

German pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. (Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn)

German pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal. (Atelier Frei Otto Warmbronn)

Frei Otto’s Pritzker exposes the jury to the charge of not having done its homework. True, his work is as ridiculous as anyone looking at it would have to conclude just by looking at it. As such, it lives up to the standard set by previous Pritzker winners. But if you read all of Oliver Wainwright’s story in the Guardian, “Frei Otto: The titan of tent architecture,” you find that the late architect, who died shortly before his Pritzker’s announcement, doubts the value of his own legacy. He is disappointed by the “buildings” he has erected and their failure to achieve the “purpose” he set for them. Otto criticizes architecture – not modern architecture per se – for what most people would see as obvious flaws. Why did the Pritzker jury decide to give Otto such a visible podium? Oops! Must have been an accident.

If you are waiting for the architectural press to quote the passages near the end of Wainwright’s piece, or Otto’s own criticism of modern architecture, don’t hold your breath. I will do it for you. (And what the heck’s gotten into Wainwright, by the way? He himself quoted these passages. Hmm.) Here are his story’s last three paragraphs:

But Otto himself was always frustrated that his ideas didn’t go elsewhere. Indeed his dream of developing a new language for a democratic world remained confined to the domain of aviaries and mega-events, co-opted for temporary thrills. In the 1970s he envisioned a fantastical speculative proposal for an Arctic City, to house 40,000 people under a 2 kilometer wide inflatable dome. But it was a naïve utopia, like Buckminster Fuller’s dome over Manhattan, that he became highly critical of later in life.

“Why should we build very large spaces when they are not necessary?” he told Icon. “We can build houses that are two or three kilometres high and we can design halls spanning several kilometres and covering a whole city but we have to ask what does it really make? What does society really need?” As Dubai proposes to build the world’s first indoor city as a hermetically sealed retail environment, and Google plans its own greenhouse tech-utopia, a plug-in city garnished with shrubbery, it’s not hard to see why Otto had mixed feelings about his own legacy.

“My generation had a big task after the war and of course we thought we could do it better,” he said. “Today 60 years later, we can’t be proud of what we have done. But we tried; we tried to go a new way.”

When you blame the problems of history on a style of architecture, as Otto’s generation of architects did, and as the founders of modernism did, then your response is probably going to take you in the wrong direction. Like (I think) most modern architects, Frei Otto understood that. Unlike most, he had the courage to admit it. May he rest in peace.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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