One fold, then two, and the flat, innocuous looking square begins to take shape.
In the hands of Peter Engel, a Trestle Glen resident and architect, a single sheet of paper offers a world of possibilities.
Aside from designing imaginative solutions to buildings in his architecture practice, Engel also has the distinction of being a renowned practitioner of the ancient art form of Japanese paper folding known as origami. He's been creating original origami designs for more than 30 years, and his work has been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world. In addition, he is the author of three books on the subject, starting with "Origami From Angelfish to Zen" in 1989, "10-Fold Origami" in 2009 and his most recent, "Origami Odyssey; A Journey to the Edge of Paperfolding" in 2011.
"Origami is a minimalist art, much the same as other Japanese arts such as Zen garden design, haiku and brush painting," Engel said.
Each time Engel picks up a sheet of origami paper, he is embarking on a new creative adventure. The forms that emerge from his hands are things of beguiling beauty that are, in his words, "intended to evoke, not mimic, their subjects. In the end, origami artwork is not a representation of an animal, a flower or ocean waves, but an abstract assemblage of geometric shapes that brings to mind a kind of mythic essence of those objects."
Engel's paper-folding journey began when he was a young boy and deepened as he migrated from his childhood home in New York City. He eventually settled in Oakland, where he lives with his wife, Sheryl, and their two children. Along the way, he made stops at Harvard University, where he studied the philosophy of science, and Columbia University in New York, where he earned a master's degree in architecture.
Eventually, his path led him to Asia, traveling to a dozen or so different countries where he pursued further studies and research in art, philosophy and architecture. Origami was never far from his mind, and during one such journey, he sought out an iconic Japanese sensei (master) origami practitioner by the name of Akira Yoshizawa in Ogikubo, Japan. Peter had previously sent a sample of his work -- a reindeer -- and the master apparently thought it sufficient enough to warrant an audience where others had tried and failed. He writes extensively of this visit in his first book, and the time he spent with his sensei was brief but transformative. Yoshizawa died in 2005 at the age of 94 and left behind a trove of original origami creations numbering many tens of thousands.
The more I have come to know Engel, the more I sense that origami is not only one of his passions, but a metaphor for how he conducts his life and practice. His thoughtful and thorough exploration of ideas and possibilities, be they mundane or complex, demonstrate care and concentration.
"When I approach an architectural project, I bring along the discipline of origami -- 'How can I achieve more with less?' -- but the goals are quite different," he said. "Architecture is about people and their experience of a place. An origami model is ephemeral, but so, in a way, is the building."
Each time Engel embarks on a new design, the process is carefully plotted out. He uses a variety of techniques that run from line drawings that look similar to an architectural blueprint to digital photography. The work is painstakingly recorded and saved when often months or even years intervene during the process. With practice and determination, he insists that most, but perhaps not all, of his designs can be reproduced by anyone. Under Engel's watchful eye, I recently attempted to create the eponymous sailboat that schoolchildren have been folding for ages. I was quite satisfied with my initial foray into origami but somewhat disheartened when Engel pointed out that a 12-year-old boy he was mentoring demonstrated "a more natural aptitude" for the task.
Engel's paper folds are not necessarily the standard bird-shaped crane that many of us have either tried or seen performed, although he says simple folds are not to be looked down upon. His origami takes a turn into the unexpected, at least for the uninitiated. His creations have a multidimensional organic quality that challenge one's eye and expectations.
Origami may be a minimalist art, but its complexity can be as unnerving as a Rubik's cube. Nothing in nature is immune to origami interpretation, and the numerous examples of leaves, bugs, birds and the inanimate harbor limitless opportunities.
Peter Engel explores them all and expounds on and unlocks their secrets in precious detail in his books and lectures. It matters not if you ever fold a single piece of paper, but to read Peter Engel's words or set eyes upon his creations opens a window to a world in which the improbable is deconstructed, folded, then made possible and beautiful.
Blake Gilmore is a general contractor and occasional writer and essayist. He has lived for 24 years on Heartwood Drive in Montclair.