Origami at Yale University, School of Architecture

Like the patterns of nature, the origami model is a skillful accumulation of simple elements.
— Peter Engel, "Folding the Universe"

The writer Cynthia Zarin, who teaches in the Department of English at Yale, was asked by architect Deborah Berke,  Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, to develop and teach an elective writing class called “Architectural Writing”. This class explores the similarities between writing and architecture in structure and form while helping graduate students improve their writing and communication skills.

Cynthia, a good friend and client, asked me to lead a special discussion on origami, another process that is similarly methodical yet rich in creativity. When I taught at the Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture several years ago, I would often incorporate the practice of origami in my lectures. I had Cynthia’s students fold some simple and more complex models while she gave them a writing assignment to “describe the experience, a detail of the experience and abstraction of the experience”.

For the students and myself, it was a great opportunity to discuss my connection to origami and what brought me to it when I was teaching at Pratt. I taught a core curriculum class called “Technics” for incoming freshman architecture students. The course explored the general concepts of the structure of materials and structure systems. One of our exercises was to build a membrane/enclosed structure in model form. In looking for inspiration, the work of architect, illustrator and author Heinrich Engel came to mind.

His book "Structure Systems" is an illustrated guide to the development of continuous structures that support and enclose. He was also a passionate observer of traditional Japanese architecture and, like his book "Structure Systems", he wrote and illustrated the book "The Japanese House: A Tradition for Contemporary Architecture". For me, the folded structures were a direct reference to the origami that I knew a little about at the time. I found a book called "Origami in Action" by Robert Lang with origami models that moved or transformed. We folded in class which helped create a quick and easy reference for the students to follow in the exploration of their own assignments 

Since my years at Pratt I became interested in Kusudama origami, a form of origami in which folded units are sewn together into a spherical shape, and joined Origami USA. I attend annual conventions and fold models while on vacation whenever I can fit it in. Some great origami resources include Robert Lang's PBS special on origami, the developments by Erik Demaine and my favorite folding modular book by Tomoko Fuse.

Many thanks to Cynthia for inviting me to this special class. It was a privilege to speak with the next generation of architects, and I hope origami can serve as an inspirational medium to them as it has for me.

Here are two essays from our session:


Origami Crane
Sunny Cui

Earlier this week, I went back to my grandparents’ old house to organize the books that remained in the corner of the study. I picked up a Chinese textbook from primary school, with a yellowed cover and slightly rubbed corners. When I wiped out the dust, something fell from the pages. It was a paper crane. It had been so perfectly stored in the book that the paper was flattened as if ironed, although that black ink drop on the head of the crane, which indicated the eyes, was smudged. I picked it up and held it in my hand carefully. I gently pulled the tail, and watched its wings flap and tremble. All of a sudden it was alive.

The ancient legend of the paper crane promises that anyone who folds a thousand cranes will be granted happiness and long life or recovery from illness. Only few people know how to make paper cranes nowadays, but it was once so popular that almost everyone in my primary school had one on their desk. I always made origami by following the steps demonstrated by the diagrams, but the paper crane is an exception. I learned that from my grandfather, with whom I filled a jar with a thousand paper cranes, held together by strings.

The process of making something so delicate and lovely out of the intersection of folds reminds me of the time that I sat beside my grandfather, doing my homework while watched him reading and practicing calligraphy in the afternoons, in this same room, where the window framed a wall of creepers. My grandfather had a collection of origami paper stored in the third drawer under his table. We always started with a square piece of paper. I liked the ones with patterns of ginkgo leaves. I played with the paper cranes that we made together. My eyes kept tracing the movement of the sun until it moved out of the frame. How I wish I could freeze the picture.

This week, we had an origami workshop in my writing class. Instinctively I started on making a paper crane the moment I chose a piece of paper from the pile. I relied on my muscle memory once I started folding. First, I folded the paper in half into a rectangle, and then I folded the top of the paper down to double back the sheet. Then creased. After unfolding and folding it in half the other way, I ended up with a cross crease. Going back to the square, I did the same diagonally. Creased, then unfolded. Up to this point, I remember it all clearly. Bringing corners to the middle line and lining up, repeating and reversing, I tried all kinds of folds until I saw a diamond shape with two flaps sticking out that looked familiar. I kept messing up the paper, folding and refolding. The face of my grandfather became clearer in my mind. I remember the warm spring afternoons when we made that “thousand paper cranes” together while I sat beside his bed in the hospital. Now the head and tail nestled in between what would become the wings. I folded the tip of the head down. Crease, and unfold, leaving the invisible but indelible marks.


Springing Memory
Filipp Blyakher

I reached for the pad of square papers and pulled out agreen one. I looked around the room to see which colors others were using. Orange and pink – suitable for waterbombs but not for this little reptile. Waterbombs… they can’t hop. This will be fun, I thought.

I was sitting half up-right, a bit slouched as I toyed with the sheet, deciding which color side I wanted to fold. One side was red with radial patterns of flowers and triangles. The green side was covered in a grid of complementary colors. I dared to imagine the scales of my paper creature: green would look great.

Fold in half.

I remembered the first few steps just as I was taught. I think I made my first origami fold in first grade, but, regrettably I can’t remember what we constructed. Either way almost everything seems to have the same first two steps.

Fold in half.

Fold sides to center.

I remember the rest of the fold for this creature from Ericson; he was a short, silent, but bubbly Chinese classmate in my middle school. We were close friends, and we sat in almost every class together. Sometimes we played battleship, other times we played something quicker. Often, I nudged him after we settled down in the back of a classroom and we raced to set up a grid in the hidden pages of our notebooks. D2! Miss! J10! Hit! The other boys played games too. In fact, everyone played games whether our teachers knew it or not.

Fold sides to folded edge.

Sometimes all the boys played together. Our favorite three games were: quarters (you flick your quarter across the table to knock your opponent off the edge), Chinese poker (everyone knew how to play this game. Loser would forfeit his dessert snack), and frog wars: a cheap and quick turn, based attack game with little frogs instead of soldiers. Frogs attacking frogs! Impossible to object to! We all particularly hated music class on Mondays. To be honest, I can’t remember there actually being anything taught during music class. It was the perfect time to fold and boldly attack!

Turn over.

I had to think back on how Ericson taught me to fold this side. One side would be for arms, the other for legs.

Small squirts crammed in the corner of our music classroom, we slammed the wooden desks together. All six of us would watch Ericson rip a sheet of paper and then trim it to a perfect square. Each boy was to make seven jumping toys and label his army with his initials.

Fold corners to point.

Ericson taught us how to make two types of toys. We called one the Super-Jumper because it, well, it really could jump two feet or more! The Super-Jumper was the Special-Forces unit of all possible origami frogs. Few people could craft one properly. We aligned all our little creatures at the edge of the table and prepare for battle.

Fold corners to make feet.

In the background, our teacher put on a cassette recording of Beethoven. In a raspy voice he whimpered to the class: “Today we will be listening to Beethoven’s symphony number nine! I want you to pay attention!” He trailed off in the background as a frog leapt forth into the arena. We launched our assaults.

James Wagman