Folding Space in Altadena

Physicist Robert Lang is boldly creating origami spaceships for a portal where no traveler has gone before...the LAX Airport Metro Connector

6 mins read
A man holding a life-like origami bird
Robert Lang and origami California Scrub-Jay. Photo: Phil Hopkins

The road up to Robert J. Lang’s Altadena studio narrows into a dizzy Fibonacci-like spiral, climbing into the foothills, winding through switchbacks and shaggy cul-de-sacs.

Then suddenly, you’re there at the top with no further to go.

A Red-tailed hawk spins slowly in a thermal overhead.

An origami spaceship secured for fabrication.
An origami spaceship design, folded for fabrication and destined for the Airport Metro Connector art installation. Photo: Susan Hopkins

This unfurling above and below is mirrored in “The Distance of the Sun,” Lang’s current project now underway for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority in collaboration with noted Los Angeles artist Glenn Kaino.

The project known as the Airport Metro Connector (AMC) will provide a gateway connection between LAX and Metro’s regional transit system, featuring a whorl of Lang’s large-scale origami spacecraft suspended above scurrying airport travelers.

Lang is long and lean, tanned, relaxed and most definitely not Nisei. And yet he is recognized as one of the world’s leading masters of origami, sought out for his original insights which apply cutting-edge mathematical theory to the art of folded paper.

Lang says, “The Metro station sculpture is very much the brainchild of Glenn Kaino, who conceived it, pitched it and has been shepherding the project along for years. My part is the origami design and folding, which, of course, I love to do. It’s been a very fun project to be a part of.”

Along the way, Lang and Kaino brainstormed with a classroom of young students for inspiration, integrating some of their concepts into the airborne installation, which is slated for unveiling in 2024.

Concept art for the Airport Metro Connector. Source: Metro

The production of the spacecraft for the LAX Metro station poses specific challenges. Not only will the sculptures hang over the heads of pedestrians; the installation will be open-air and exposed to the elements.

“Each of the spacecraft will be between one and three meters in length, so they’re being fabricated using a 3-D printer out of polymer. They need to be lightweight as well as durable, so steel, for example, was out of the question,” Lang says.

He delivered folded prototypes to Kaino’s fabrication team in May.

Origami has been Lang’s passion for more than a half-century, so much so that in 2001 he shed several prestigious skins – NASA JPL researcher, laser physicist, electrical engineer, R&D manager – and quit his day job working with semiconductor lasers to fold paper instead.

“It sounds dramatic, but it really wasn’t,” he says. “I was a manager, supervising engineers. I had already written a couple of what I call recipe books on how to fold paper, but I’d been trying to write a design book for about 10 years. I finally got to the point where I needed to get rid of distractions. I had to do it full-time. I knew there were plenty of other smart, qualified people who could supervise the engineers, but I really felt that I was the only guy to write the book. And I also decided that origami was a lot more fun than management.”

The book was Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Methods for an Ancient Art, published in 2003, now considered iconic in its field for Lang’s mind-blowing exploration of uniaxial bases, the circle/river method, and tree theory.

In graph theory, a particular type of stick figure is called a “tree,” a key term also present in the several iterations of Lang’s Treemaker computer program, a powerful, algorithm-guided tool capable of constructing the full crease-pattern for a wide variety of origami bases.

A savant’s laser-like focus defines Lang’s biography. He’s catalogued more than 800 origami designs and was the first Westerner ever invited to address the Nippon Origami Association’s annual meeting in 1992. He is the author or co-author of 21 books and many articles that boldly go where no man has gone before, a final frontier where computing, math and a rigorously traditional art form meet.

He’s also authored or co-authored more than 80 technical publications and 50 patents awarded on semiconductor lasers, optics, and optoelectronics, just by the way.

The appeal of origami is more than decorative, he explains. The ability to take a larger object and make it smaller through folding has promising applications in many areas of medicine, science and technology. Origami-inspired design is already in use in the design of automobile safety airbags, a collapsible space telescope mirror, and even a heart stent used in laparoscopic surgery.

Folding way-new origami - Robert Lang
Lang’s 2008 TED Talk, which has racked-up almost 3,000,000 views. Source: TED Ed on YouTube

To the uninitiated, origami, like higher mathematics, may seem formal, formidable and slavishly rigid. Yet Lang describes both disciplines as soft, yielding and fluid.

“There are no hard and fast rules,” he says. “I’m not a hard-liner, or a purist. The early masters of origami broke their own rules all the time. Some of them used cuts, and (Akira) Yoshizawa introduced wet folding, for example.”

Origami for beginners teaches that the paper used must be square, and two-colored, with no cutting or gluing allowed. Yet Yoshizawa, credited with elevating origami to its present-day status as a living art unrestricted by cultural boundaries, bent the rules by dampening thick paper for a rounder, more sculpted look. As with writing haiku, formal rules for Lang merely provide a common framework inviting daring departure.

The anatomy of origami seems to mirror his hilltop studio, where a Cooper’s hawk may perch beside Lang’s cast bronze interpretation of a raptor on the outdoor deck, and where bobcats routinely drink from the trickling water feature set against the sandy hillside.

The all-important folds formed in origami are called mountains and valleys by practitioners, and Lang says that observing nature – his studio borders the Angeles National Forest – provides a constant source of inspiration.

Black Forest Cuckoo Clock, Opus 182. One uncut 1×10 rectangle of paper. Size: 15″. Courtesy: Robert Lang

“Growing up in Georgia, there were always woods to walk in,” he says, adding that a recent Hawaiian vacation inspired him to fold Manta rays for the first time, just as a few years studying in Germany produced a whimsical Schwarzwald cuckoo-clock, complete with pine cone weights, formed from folded paper.

“I’m glad to be living here on the edge of nature, and so glad to have returned to Southern California four years ago after doing my time in Silicon Valley. And especially since my wife Diane, who is a children’s book author, is a native Altadenan.”

Lang’s goal as an artist is not to reproduce a photographic likeness of a subject, but rather to capture the emotional impact of whatever he’s modeling in paper, especially insects and other arthropods with thin, jointed legs, carapaces and protuberances, considered among the most difficult origami forms to master.

Lang is typically unfazed, explaining that the different types of papers kept in his flat file drawers are selected for their specific properties.

“The Chinese take credit for the invention of paper, and rightfully so,” he says. “But paper-folding, or folding of paper-like sheets, is archetypal. Many cultures have some version of it. In pre-contact Mesoamerica, the Olmec and Maya made complex fan-folded books with pounded fig bark, in ancient Egypt it was done with papyrus, and even skills like napkin-folding have a place in all of this, because Europeans who loved napkin-folding would practice with paper.”

11 Levels of Origami: Easy to Complex | WIRED
Lang’s explanation of how a Cicada is created in origami. Source: Wired

Lang doesn’t fold and crease using the elegant stylus made of bone favored by many origami masters, explaining that he needs to feel the texture and nature of the paper with his fingertips in order to understand how to fold optimally.

He works with both handmade and machine-made papers, including but not limited to the traditional origami kozo, made from the inner bark of the mulberry tree. This is not Dunder-Mifflin territory, folks, as Lang explains that the key difference between wood-pulp paper and 100 percent cellulose, cotton-rag slurry-formed paper is material longevity.

“For example, there are more newspapers reporting on Lincoln’s assassination still in existence than there are reporting on Kennedy’s assassination, because the latter have mostly crumbled away,” he says.

An unstable substance called lignin, present in wood pulp papers, is what literally makes wood hard, but also causes the paper to yellow and grow brittle as it oxidizes. “This is why newspapers turn yellow,” he says.

With this in mind, Lang chooses from pH-balanced, acid-free art papers where the lignin has been processed out. Among his favorites: wild-crafted Nepalese lokta, and tear-resistant “elephant hide” paper often used in bookbinding as well as wet-folding and O’Malley Crackle, a limited-edition, walnut-dyed flax, gelatin-sized paper that he uses to sculpt the local black bears, which are frequent studio visitors.

Mathematics underlying the Fibonacci sequence. Diagram: Adobe Stock

As he draws me a map for my return to the flats, Lang explains that some modern origamists work with a versatile rectangle known as the “silver rectangle.”

He quickly sketches another shape which displays the ratios of the Golden Mean, with the Golden Ratio of 1.1618 creating the template for the Fibonacci sequence, the exquisite spiral magically present in the shell of the chambered nautilus, the fiddlehead of a new fern, the concentric grasp of an octopus arm, the mosaic seeds of a ripe sunflower head, the swirl of our Milky Way galaxy, and even the retro Space Race-era design of the silvery Jiffy Pop stovetop popcorn pouch.

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Math, he says, is the blueprint of nature itself, silently present in everything from our stars to our snacks, “…and origami is my way of uncovering this.”

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Victoria Thomas

Victoria has been a journalist since her college years when she wrote for Rolling Stone and CREEM. Victoria describes the view of Mt. Wilson from her front step as “staggering,” and she is a defender of peacocks everywhere.
Email: [email protected]

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