Frei Otto: Spanning the Future

School News

Frei Otto: Spanning the Future

March 30, 2016


The USC School of Architecture will host the U.S. premiere of Frei Otto: Spanning the Future on March 30 at 6 pm in the Gin D. Wong, FAIA Conference Center.


The documentary film was the brainchild of USC Architecture Ph.D. Candidate Simon Chiu. Originally from Hong Kong, Simon came to Los Angeles to attend USC, where he received his B.Arch in 1996 and his MRED in 2005, before embarking on his Ph.D. in 2010. He came up with the idea for the film in the course of his doctoral research on tensile structures.


“Frei Otto was the pioneer of tensile membrane architecture,” says Chiu. “Active in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, he didn’t do projects like most architects. His work was research-focused.”


Otto founded the Institute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart and is perhaps most well-known for his work on the roof of the 1972 Olympic Stadium in Munich and the German Pavilion at the 1967 World Expo.


In the course of his own research, Chiu discovered that while Otto was prominent in the mid-20th century, there has been relatively little written about him, and most of it is in German.


With the enthusiastic support of Professor Doug Noble, Chair of the Ph.D. program, Chiu decided in spring 2012 to film a documentary about Frei Otto. He worked with Colorado Public Television (PBS-CPT12) and conducted interviews through October 2013.


“Simon is the classic ‘behind-the-camera’ organizer who seems never to get credit for being the leading player in creating this amazing film,” said Professor Noble. “He was able to marshall considerable resources to make it happen.”


The film includes interviews with Zaha Hadid, Stefan Behnisch, Otto’s collaborators (including Professor Goetz Schierle, who worked with Frei Otto in 1957 on one of his first big projects), Dean Qingyun Ma, and Frei Otto himself, with whom Chiu spent a day at Otto’s home in Warmbronn, Germany.


Post-production was completed in summer 2015, not long after Otto passed away (and was awarded the 2015 Pritzker Prize).


“Unfortunately, Frei Otto did not get to see the completed film,” says Chiu. “It is something I terribly regret, because it was a promise I made to him in person.”


The film’s European premiere was at the 2015 Architecture Film Festival in Rotterdam, after which, the film was re-edited. The March 30th screening at USC will be the first screening of this final cut.


While producing the film, Chiu also completed a Master of Engineering at Technische Universität Wien and co-founded a start-up focused on tensile membrane architecture. He is currently working to complete his dissertation on the connection points of tensile membrane structures, which Chiu has named “tarsos.”


In the near future, Chiu is considering distribution options for the film and plans to screen it at universities and film festivals. Due to Otto’s recent passing and the Pritzker Prize, Chiu has fielded many requests for the film, which will likely air on PBS this fall.


“I will let anyone with a true interest show the film,” said Chiu, expressing his admiration for “true educators” who “find new knowledge — and share with everyone.”


The March 30 screening is free and open to the public.