Jörg Schlaich (1934–2021)

Falk Jaeger
8. September 2021
Jörg Schlaich in 2013 (Photo: Amin Akhtar)

It was impossible not to notice his dialect; Jörg Schlaich was a true Swabian, born in 1934 in the Rems Valley in the wine village of Kernen near Stuttgart. After his school years in Stetten and Waiblingen — not exactly cosmopolitan cities — he first learned a decent trade, namely carpentry, before studying civil engineering in Stuttgart and Berlin. The Swabian pietistic influence he experienced in his parents’ pastoral household did not stop him from looking around the world, for example from working as an assistant with reinforced concrete construction in Cleveland, Ohio, where he completed his Master’s degree.

At the time, Stuttgart was home to a star engineer, Fritz Leonhardt, the pioneer of television towers. Schlaich joined his office in 1963 and seven years later became a partner in the renowned office of Leonhardt and Andrä, until he started his own business in 1979 together with Rudolf Bergermann. Schlaich also took over Leonhardt’s chair of solid construction at the University of Stuttgart in 1974, which he held for 27 years, training and shaping generations of civil engineers. Schlaich played a major role in establishing Stuttgart’s reputation as a Mecca for leading international civil and structural engineers, a status also epitomized by other protagonists of experimental construction such as Frei Otto, Werner Sobek, Jan Knippers, Achim Menges and Transsolar.

Erzbahnschwinge pedestrian and cycle bridge in the Westpark, Bochum (Photo: NatiSythen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jörg Schlaich had three passions: bridge construction; lightweight construction using tensile structures; and the promotion of solar energy. Moreover, design was always a special concern for him, as was collaboration with capable architects. In commercial construction, he considered it his task to make the architects’ ideas buildable. In many projects, he was the decisive man in the background who made things feasible in the first place — the roof of the Olympic Stadium in Munich, for example, which the general public associates with the engineers Frei Otto and Behnisch. Congenial collaboration resulted in buildings such as the Alster Indoor Swimming Pool in Hamburg (1973, with Walter Neuhäußer), the Züblinhaus Stuttgart (1984, with Gottfried Böhm), and many other significant projects.

View of the Olympic Stadium from the Olympiaberg (Photo: Amrei-Marie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In bridge construction projects, engineers are usually also responsible for the design, much to the chagrin of Jörg Schlaich, who often enough denounced the deplorable state of bridge construction. One example was the countless railway bridges whose insensitive designs spoiled the landscape and aroused his anger. Hence, in 2008, Schlaich drew up a Guide to the Design of Railway Bridges on behalf of Deutsche Bahn, the German railway company. Since then, noticeable improvements have been made, and new projects have won bridge construction and engineering awards.

When it came to his own bridges, it seemed that, coming from a background of solid concrete construction, he was increasingly looking for lightweight, filigree solutions and thus inevitably arrived at suspension and tensile constructions. His footbridges for the International Garden Festival (IGA) in Stuttgart in 1993, the Erzbahnschwinge in Bochum, the Grimberger Sichel spanning the Rhine-Herne Canal, which were not just ordinary pedestrian bridges but inspired special names because of their unique, elegant forms, are all built poetry.

Lookout tower in the Killesberg Höhenpark, Stuttgart (Photo: pjt56, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The elegant forms, incidentally, emerged from the endeavor to exhaust engineering technology and to achieve ever greater performance with ever less material input. For Jörg Schlaich was convinced that it was the task of engineers to minimize construction, to act sustainably and to protect the environment to the greatest extent possible. This is why he turned to the use of solar energy at an early stage. The project closest to his heart — the updraft power plant, which he tirelessly propagated for many years — did not get beyond a small prototype in Spain in 1981-86, much to his disappointment. Larger projects in Australia and Namibia failed due to lack of funding.

Jörg Schlaich and Rudolf Bergermann (Photo © schlaich bergermann partner)

Schlaich bergermann partner has long since grown into an internationally active company with branches from New York to Shanghai. Today, it is run by his son, Mike Schlaich, and the partners Knut Göppert, Andreas Keil, Sven Plieninger, Knut Stockhusen and Michael Stein. Elegant World Cup stadiums have been built all over the world (with tensile roof structures, of course), bridges from Seattle to New Delhi, skyscrapers in Manhattan, all of which are at the forefront of technological development. Prof. Dr.-Ing. Dr. e.H. mult.  Jörg Schlaich died on September 4, 2021, at the age of 86. His inquiring and inventive spirit lives on in the engineering office.

This article originally appeared as "Gebaute Poesie" on German-Architects. Translation by Bianca Murphy.

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