Stiffening due to internal stress generation is of paramount importance in living systems and is the foundation for many biomechanical processes. For example, cells stiffen their surrounding matrix by pulling on collagen and fibrin fibers. At the subcellular level, molecular motors prompt fluidization and actively stiffen the cytoskeleton by sliding polar actin filaments in opposite directions. Here, we demonstrate that chemical cross-linking of a fibrous matrix of synthetic semiflexible polymers with thermoresponsive poly(N-isopropylacrylamide) (PNIPAM) produces internal stress by induction of a coil-to-globule transition upon crossing the lower critical solution temperature of PNIPAM, resulting in a macroscopic stiffening response that spans more than 3 orders of magnitude in modulus. The forces generated through collapsing PNIPAM are sufficient to drive a fluid material into a stiff gel within a few seconds. Moreover, rigidified networks dramatically stiffen in response to applied shear stress featuring power law rheology with exponents that match those of reconstituted collagen and actomyosin networks prestressed by molecular motors. This concept holds potential for the rational design of synthetic materials that are fluid at room temperature and rapidly rigidify at body temperature to form hydrogels mechanically and structurally akin to cells and tissues.