The Magic of Herr Otto

Second Home London Fields

Second Home’s remarkable workspace in an East London neighbourhood was pushed to the limits by a Spanish architect’s love of a German engineer.

It was the crowning moment in the story of Second Home London Fields. The most important and most delicate piece of the jigsaw. The signature 1,000 square metre facade was being hoisted up on a windy March morning. In fact, it was one of the worst storms in recent years.

Architect and mastermind behind the London Fields project, Gonzalo Cano, watched carefully as 15 Italian builders, a giant crane and three cherry-pickers grappled with what would have been an unwieldy nightmare even on a calm day.

Second Home London Fields

As the rain lashed down, the giant facade was flapping violently in the wind to the horror of the project team looking on from the street.

Hours later the sun came out and the result emerged: an eye-catching stretched translucent skin, undulating over the front of the four-storey former music hall.

Cano was never in any doubt that this was a good idea. It came from a life-long fascination with the work of a German structural engineer named Frei Otto.

Otto Disciple

When Otto died four years ago – he left behind a legacy as a pioneer in building design and a legion of nerdy architect fans who adored his work. Cano was one of them.

Gonzalo Cano

Cano first discovered Otto, an architect student in Madrid in the late 1970s – a period where the design world was awash in postmodernist extravagance.

“Frei Otto and his light structures were like a blast of fresh air at that time” says Cano. “He set his view on nature. I was seduced by his work, even though back then I didn’t know how to appreciate it the way I do now.”

Otto’s thing was “tensile membrane structures” – thin tent-like skins, held together by cables and poles. His creations have been described as umbrellas and soap bubbles.

Frei Otto, Düsseldorf (date unknown)

Luftwaffe Pilot

Cano saw the magic of Otto in how he manipulated lightweight, low-impact and simple materials – long before designers were talking about “sustainability.”

“He was an investigator, a humanist” Cano adds. Prior to building his career as an engineer/architect, Otto was a Luftwaffe pilot in the Second World War and ended up as a prisoner of war where he was designing camps.

He later drew inspiration from the constraint of materials in those camps – the biological frames of animals and plants which allowed him to play with simple structures. Cano adds: “He wanted to look after the environment and was always looking for the balance between nature, the city and its inhabitants… [he was] an incredible character.”

Otto’s Inspiration References

Euro 88 Final Stadium

His most famous work is arguably the roof of the Munich Olympic stadium built for the 1972 Olympics.

For many of us, of a certain age, this stadium conjures images of Euro 1988 – a football tournament which staged one of the famous finals – the Soviet Union against a flamboyantly gifted Dutch team. And apart from a famous Marco Van Basten goal, the other abiding memory of the final is the mesmerising roof which loomed over the stadium.

Munich’s Olympiastadion

Architecture and Imagery

The “Olympiastadion” has long receded in status. It’s no longer even the most iconic ground in Munich, let alone Germany.

But it demonstrated the power of great architecture. The spindly roof design and spider web structure jarred with the stereotype of teutonic edifices. West Germany was still trying to shake off associations of fascism at the time, and many of its imposing stone buildings – including stadiums which harked back to that era. Otto’s roof was welcomed by the reforming powers, as a radical move to present a gentler, even humbler image of the country.

Creating Calm

Cano says he’s been more drawn to Otto’s smaller scale works such as a lightweight pavilion in Stuttgart: “the control of the light, the colour and the proportion of the space underneath that membrane is an extraordinary example because of its resulting simplicity and atmosphere.” He says it generates “environmental warmth”, which is especially relevant as the need to make the most of square inches conflicts with the need for people in cities to feel a sense of calm.

Stuttgart Pavilion 1967

The Stress Ring

London Fields’ Stress Rings

That said, simplicity often camouflages considerable complex work behind the scenes. For Cano, this was certainly the case with London Fields – and this is where things get a bit technical…

The ferocious weather on installation day was an extreme test of how this lightweight material would hold up against the wind and even gravity.

Although he didn’t expect the facade to be challenged so early, Cano had prepared for this in the design. He created a series of “stress rings” (the large circles on the front of the building), with radial poles linked together and holding the plastic tightly. “It was a clever game which broke down the loads applied to the membrane in multiple directions, optimising their dimensions and lightening their weight.”

 

  One Step Ahead

(Left to right clockwise) The O2, The British Museum, Eden Project

Otto’s influence is everywhere: the Eden Project in Cornwall and The O2 are the obvious ones.

Norman Foster cites Otto as the inspiration behind the Great Dome in The British Museum. “He has remained one step ahead of most of us. He’s always been an architectural vocabulary inspired by lightness” says Foster.

 

 

The Otto Way

Back at London Fields, Cano sees something more than just Otto’s aesthetic, materials and even philosophy on buildings. He talks of an intuitive and experimental approach to design that’s enormously radical, even brave for architects.

“I consider the mind builds from other ideas based on memory, which allows us to know, understand and feel. For this façade, the knowledge of Frei Otto’s experimental work is what allowed us to have a method as a safe and correct guide for the intuition.”

On a sunny Friday morning a month after that momentous day when the facade went up, a team of workers sit inside their warm and bright window-facing studio – “so, what’s the story with the thing on the front?”

“Well…”

Second Home London Fields