Architect Frei Otto awarded Pritzker Prize a day after his death

Frei Otto, the German architect and engineer best known for his tent-like structures for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, has been posthumously named the 2015 winner of the Pritzker Prize, the highest honor in architecture.

Otto died Monday in Germany at age 89, according to Edward Lifson, a Pritzker spokesman. He would have turned 90 on May 31.


"The lessons of his pioneering work in the field of lightweight structures that are adaptable, changeable and carefully use limited resources are as relevant today as when they were first proposed over 60 years ago," the jury citation said. "He has embraced a definition of architect to include researcher, inventor, form-finder, engineer, builder, teacher, collaborator, environmentalist, humanist, and creator of memorable buildings and spaces."

Otto's work has been rediscovered in recent years by younger architects who are interested, as he was, in airy, reconfigurable tensile buildings that sit lightly on the land. The proposed new Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., by the architects Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick owes a clear debt to Otto's Olympic designs and his multipurpose hall in Mannheim, Germany, among other projects.

Otto was also an inspiration to Shigeru Ban, the Japanese architect who was last year's Pritzker laureate. Ban and Otto collaborated on the design of the Japan Pavilion at the Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany.

Otto grew up in Berlin; both his father and a grandfather were sculptors. His education in architecture was delayed by World War II. As a German foot soldier, he was captured near the end of the war and held in a prisoner of war camp near Chartres, France. In 1948 he was finally able to enroll at the Technical University of Berlin.

Like Hans Scharoun, architect of the 1963 Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, Otto aimed in his work for populism and informality. Both architects were careful to avoid any echoes in their buildings of the muscular, rigidly monumental architecture favored by the Third Reich.

After the war Otto sought to achieve "a real revolution in architecture, remaking Germany as a peaceful country," he told the BBC last year.

Otto also looked to the natural world — to spiderwebs, soap bubbles and coral reefs — for inspiration, making him in many respects a pioneer in what is now called sustainable, or green, architecture.

This year's nine-member Pritzker jury included Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (who joined in 2012) as well as the architects Alejandro Aravena, Benedetta Tagliabue, Glenn Murcutt, Yung Ho Chang and Richard Rogers.

Otto's death forced Pritzker officials to scramble to prepare an announcement that is typically carefully choreographed. The prize was announced Tuesday afternoon, nearly two weeks before the planned date of March 23. For a while on Tuesday the Pritzker website included the news that Otto had won the prize but had no mention of his death.

"We were able to tell him that he received the prize before he passed away," Lifson said.

The ceremony for the 2015 prize will be held May 15 at the New World Center in Miami Beach, designed by the 1989 Pritzker winner Frank Gehry.