AD Classics: Munich Olympic Stadium / Frei Otto & Gunther Behnisch

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Often mentioned as a pioneer in lightweight tensile and membrane construction, yet overshadowed in the discipline of architecture, Frei Otto along with Gunther Behnisch collaborated to design the 1972 Olympic Stadium in , Germany.  With the having already been held in Berlin in 1936, Otto and Behnisch took the second games in Germany as an opportunity and a second chance to show Germany in a new light.  Their goal was to design a structure that would emulate the games motto: “The Happy Games” as more of a whimsical architectural response that would overshadow the heavy, authoritarian stadium in Berlin.

More of the 1972 Olympic Stadium in Munich after the break.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Otto and Behnisch conceptualized a sweeping tensile structure that would flow continuously over the site imitating the draping and rhythmic protrusions of the Swiss Alps.  The result is a suspended cloud-like structure that appears to be floating over the site branching in between the natatorium, gymnasium, and the main stadium.

The continuous tensile surface that bridges all of the main buildings of the Olympic Games is subject to a hierarchical structural system that creates a series of volumes across the site.  The canopies membrane is suspended from a multitude of vertical masts that allow for the dramatic draping curves of the surface to flow dynamically across the site changing form, scale, and sectional characteristics.  The large canopies are stabilized laterally through a network of smaller cables that attach to a larger steel cable extending over the entire span into concrete footings at either end.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Aside from the buildings that the membrane covers, there is a series of volumes that are covered by the suspended surface that are used as flexible space for stands to be used during the games and at various events.

For such an expansive site, the minimal structural components work to create the dynamic sweeping surfaces that are created by various tensile connections resulting in an undulating mesh.  As the system works its way across the artificial landscape toward the main stadium, which was built in a crater from the bombings of WWII, the membrane begins to compress as it fades around the stadium.  The dramatic shift in scales of coverage heightens the perception of the floating artificial landscape that forms out of the ground to create large open span volumes only to integrate back into the ground.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In addition to its “connection” to the landscape, the acrylic glass panels that clad the tensile membrane establish a relationship to its context and the light exposure that it experiences.  The acrylic panels shimmer in the sunlight, reflecting the light, the color of the sky, and the surrounding landscape.  When illuminated, the suspended membrane appears as a cloud formation swarming over the site.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Due to Otto’s precise calculations the entire structural and membrane system was constructed off site.  The high precision allowed for a simple assembly to one of the world’s most innovative and complex structural systems that have worked solely on the premise of tension.  Even after almost 40 years after its completion, the tensile tent-like structure appears just as it did during the 1972 Olympics, the lines, form, structure, and the architectural awe still remain.

Architect: Frei Otto and Gunther Behnisch
Location: Munich, Germany
Project Year: 1968 -1972
Photographs: Wikimedia Commons
References: ArchInform

Cite: Kroll, Andrew. "AD Classics: Munich Olympic Stadium / Frei Otto & Gunther Behnisch" 11 Feb 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 29 May 2015. <>
  • Christian Speelmanns

    Hey Guys, nice article, but there are some facts to tell about the stadium:

    The competition in the late 1960ies was won by Behnisch & Partner. The young team joint the compitition last minute while nearly the model dissapeared by the parcel service. Inspired by the design for the German pavillon of Expo 67 Montreal by Frei Otto and Rolf Gutbord they formed their roof with a nylon stocking, not having a glimpse of an idea how to build it. Egon Eiermann, head of the Jury, recognized the power or the design and helped them to win the competition.

    Later, Frei Otto helped the Team as constructive consultant. Important measurings and calculations were done in his institute in Stuttgart. The official engeniers were Leonhardt Andrä und Partner with Jörg Schlaich und Rudolph Bergermann as project leaders. Frei Otto later left the team arguing about details of construction.

    The landscape design was done by Günther Grzimek and was a role model of some parks built later in Germany. The Stadium was not a bomb crater, but the olympic hill (Olympiahügel) was built of rubbish from ruins of the world war II.

  • Dave S.

    This project still feels fresh. Really an incredible achievement.

  • Graphity

    Great article, I’m from Munich, originally! Thank you! Will you make an article about the atheletes dorms in Munich as well?