Otto was born in 1925 in Siegmar, Saxony, Germany and educated at the Technical University of Berlin. In 1954, he completed "The Suspended Roof" for his doctoral thesis in engineering. He began working with prototypes of suspended structures and in 1964, as a professor at University of Stuttgart, established the Institute for Lightweight Structures. This institute has become a mecca for interdisciplinary research by engineers, architects, physicists, biologists, and philosophers.
In the 1950s he used models to define and test complex tensile shapes. As the scale of his projects increased, Otto pioneered a computer-based procedure for determining their shape and behavior. He often created pavilions composed of primary membrane elements in an additive series. He also developed a convertible roof with a variable geometry.
Otto worked with Rolf Gutbrod on the West German Pavilion at Montréal 1967 Exposition 67. Its maximum length was 427 feet (130 meters) and its maximum width 345 feet (105 meters). The steel net structure lined with a translucent plastic skin covered an area of 86,000 square feet (8,000 square meters), and the heights of the eight steel masts ranged from 46 to 125 feet (14 to 38 meters).
Writing in The Work of Frei Otto and Teams 1955-76, Ludwig Glaeser noted that they "attempted, with this competition-winning project, to create a man-made landscape. The cavernous interior contained modular steel platforms arranged at different levels. The entire area was covered by a single membrane of irregular plan and varying heights. Its contours were determined by the high points of the masts and the low points where the membrane was drawn, funnel- like, down to the ground."
Glaeser continued: "Eye loops filled with clear plastic material accentuated these points and the saddle surfaces they created. The prestressed membrane consisted of a translucent skin hung from a steel wire net, which, by eye, ridge, and edge ropes, was connected with the mast heads and anchor blocks."
Architect Behnisch designed the translucent tent over the Munich Olympics Stadium, with Frei Otto as roof design consultant. The extraordinarily large span of the structure was made possible by the linking of several amoeba-shaped tents, covering one side of the main stadium and the entire arena and swimming areas.
John Julius Norwich wrote in Great Architecture of the World: "The roof covering the main stadium consisted of a PVC-coated polyester fabric suspended on hangers independent of the cable net. The supporting masts held the main cables in tension, thus providing the necessary support for hanging roof areas."
Today, at the age of 81, Frei Otto is still practicing architecture. He is involved in the design of a movable residential architecture project near Neuss in Northern Germany. He says his aim is "that light, flexible architecture might bring about a new and open society." He is currently writing a book charting his lifetime involvement with this specialized field of city planning.
In 1980 and 1998, his projects received Aga Khan Awards in Architecture; in 1996 he won the Israeli Wolf-Prize; and in 2005 he was honored with the Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects. The Praemium Imperiale further recognizes his contributions over a long, productive lifetime.
The Japan Art Association has made multidisciplinary awards annually since 1989. This year, the other laureates are Kusama Yayoi, painting; Christian Boltanski, sculpture; Steve Reich, music; and Maya Plisetskaya, theatre/film.