Structure by Frei Otto

I have been trying to gather my thoughts and put them in an intelligible form for the last few days. Thoughts about what, you say? Oh, just this small matter of Frei Otto dying.

It is ironic how the news you want to know reaches you late, and sometimes not at all. And the other nonsensical, brain-freezing news — like politics, cricket, celebrities and other sensational items — is bombarded at you hourly and is very hard to escape from. Whether you want to know it or not, you will be forced to know it until your mind has been made up about it one way or the other — who is a good political leader? Who is a skilled cricketer? Who is the most intelligent new-kid-on-the-block pop star? You will be forced to think about these things, even if you don’t want to. But the news you want to know and think about? You will have to labour for it.

So, like I said, there was this small matter of my favourite tweenhood architect dying. Small because no one really cared about it. No one raised a big hue and cry about it. It was not of any significance to social media or the media.

I read the news a few days ago on twitter. More like stumbled upon it. Somehow, the idea of someone whose work you grew up admiring suddenly dying feels very uncanny, like a part of your childhood/tweenhood died. It makes you feel old, for one. For a second, it makes you marvel exactly how much time has elapsed since you last thought about how much you love a certain type of architecture. Also, I must admit, I haven’t given a thought to Frei Otto and whether he was dead or alive since I last made a presentation on his work for my modern architecture course. And yet, when I realized a few days ago that he had died, I felt a big disappointment, like I had missed one more bus. I feel the same disappointment when I discover some writer, singer or artist whose work I greatly admire — only to find out that he/she died a few years ago. I feel as if I missed a bus or train. When I read about Frei Otto, I murmured, “So close!”

I have noticed how we sometimes appreciate people a whole lot more when they are gone, or dead. Why should it be like that, really? It is not like anything changes when someone dies or leaves. They lived the same live that we knew about till a few hours/days ago. Yet, we appreciate them more when they are gone. And I feel guilty of the same in this case. I sincerely wished that I could have appreciated him a little more while he was alive — just in my own heart. I can be stupidly sentimental like that.

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When I was in me tweens, I was forced to see the work of a lot of architects — many names of whom I don’t recall. But, there were a few architects who immensely left a mark on my rudimentary ‘design thinking.’ They were, namely, 1) Mies Van der Rohe 2) Santiago Calatrava 3) Frei Otto 4) Frank O. Gehry — in that order. The others all came in after these and blended into almost one nebulous file of modern architecture. While I had to strive to remember the works and names of the others, these 4 were permanently imprinted in my memory.

Seeing pictures of Otto’s buildings in the last few days disclosed a packet of memories lying around all dusty in my mind. Memories of my college days. It was Frei Otto’s Munich stadium that stayed in my memory for a long time. Whenever any discussion regarding tent structures— or, as we architects like to call it, tensile structures — comes up, a mental image of Otto’s work gets conjured up in my mind automatically. I hardly ever designed a tensile structure in my life, and this is where the sad part comes in. My obsession with tensile structures was to find an outlet in my fifth year thesis project, in the form of a stadium design. This was one of those ideas which were abandoned, not for lack of love or inspiration or talent, but for lack of resources. I had not the technical know-how to handle the many complexities of a stadium. But even that was a moot point. I tried and tried, but could not find an outdoor stadium proposed anywhere in my country. And with that, I saw the demise of one of my most well-loved ideas that died even before being fully born.

I finally chose something very very easy for my thesis project, which took the challenge, and hence the fun out of it. I was a bored with my thesis. It was too kiddish for me to fully apply myself to it. I felt I was made for greater things. Like tensile structures and stadium roofs that could be moved. Ofcourse I messed up my thesis like no design assignment ever before. That is what happens when you work without love.

No, this is not a rant about how I messed up my thesis project. This is a note. A note to myself, and possibly anyone else who is reading this: it is far far better to fail at doing something you love, rather than to fail at doing something you don’t love. Frei Otto, I owe you a thanks for giving me one more thing to love in this life, and for giving me this profound realization today. It is something I have always known, but dint realize that I had already made this mistake in my life once. I forgot about how it had happened. I forgot why my thesis was my worst design submission ever. I now remember how it feels to fail at something you don’t like. This will be a reminder to me forever.

Frei Otto, your presence was a very unacknowledged presence in my life, until now. May you have a great next life, and enrich lives in even bigger and better ways.

References for viewing Frei Otto’s works:

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Economics, data science, technology, innovation. Author of “Cownomics.” IIT, MIT Alum. Publication: Holler at

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