Frei OttoInstitute for Lightweight Structures at the University of Stuttgart (ILEK)
WHEN ASKED TO DESCRIBE THE INSTITUTE FOR LIGHTWEIGHT STRUCTURES (IL) Frei Otto affectionately referred to it as a Spinnerzentrum, playing off the double meaning of Spinner in German: one who is crazy and one who spins connections and webs. Based at the University of Stuttgart and housed under the roof of one of his tent structures, the IL was led by Frei Otto from 1964 until 1990. The IL tent, built in a wooded area on the new campus of the university, was an anomaly “among scientific neighbors, who view it as a curiosity, a thorn in the side of exact sciences.” It was here that Otto’s famous models for the German pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal and the 1972 Olympics in Munich were designed. The Institute began with just six students, but by 1971, this had increased to 70 as the IL’s experimental reputation brought in young architects from all over the world. The building itself was designed without a definite interior layout, so that groups could assemble and disperse as needed, and seminars were frequently held outdoors. The open teaching organization of the IL attracted a generation eager for alternative methods of pedagogy.
The laboratory environment at the IL encouraged direct experience and playfulness. Student work was largely focused on making and documenting physical models. This ranged from constructing precise measurement models outfitted with tiny gauges, which required intense collaborative work; to playful experiments using materials like eggs, balloons, and shaving foam; to inventing devices to measure soap-film models; to taking field trips to zoos to photograph animals. Otto encouraged new forms of social interaction at the IL: in lieu of a formal teaching plan there were open discussions and interdisciplinary research groups. Otto described his vision for an ideal research institute as follows:
Today teamwork, cooperation between different disciplines, and concerted large-scale research are necessary […] We are lacking installations where inventors can work and grow with their ideas […] The “Spinners,” and those who can and want to learn spinning, will come if we dare to experiment and establish a “Spinnerzentrum.” […] For microbes, artists, and thinkers, one needs fertile ground. The intellectual revolution is strong in the field of architecture. The faculties of architecture at the schools of higher education sense this in the intellectual world of our architecture students today […] “Spinners” work on the fundaments of building; they don’t usually teach. They stand outside.
Following this vision for interdisciplinary cooperation, Otto facilitated collaboration between architects, engineers, biologists, anthropologists, and historians. Otto’s insistence on large-scale orchestrated research and experimentation as a form of architectural practice remains almost unparalleled in architectural culture. Otto’s pedagogical experiment was to recognize the changes that had taken place in the intellectual world of his students and to invite them to also become “Spinners” within this web.