Origami paperwork creates delicate sculptures through intricate folds. Each crease has to add to the work while preserving the structural and artistic contributions of each prior movement. The actions build, one on top of the next, until a unique work of art emerges.

It seems far removed from the world of urban planning and specifically, how to paint a cross walk. However, the origami process, both literal and figurative, is directly responsible for how you cross the street in downtown Santa Monica.

Four downtown “scramble” intersections (2nd / Broadway, 4th / Broadway, 2nd / Santa Monica and 4th / Santa Monica) received new paint recently but the markings had to adapt to what is perhaps the best kept secret in the city’s arts world: instructional origami designs embedded into the existing streets.

The four intersections are part of the Downtown Transit Mall, a small square of Downtown that features dedicated bus lanes between Ocean, 5th, Broadway and Santa Monica. The area received several art installations in 2000 including the hidden paperfolded streets.

“Artist Robin Brailsford, inspired by Santa Monica’s eclectic Pacific Rim location and population, has used a combination of mosaic techniques, granite pavers, and bronze origami elements to create a whole new look for this busy downtown area,” said the city on its website.

Brailsford said there are several elements built into the transit mall related to the Pacific Rim theme. She said the glass patterns in the bus shelters are set in an I Ching pattern referencing the ancient Chinese fortune telling text, mosaics in the sidewalks reference patterns from Chinese culture or Japanese kimonos, the streets are themed either blue (for the ocean) or green (for the land) and she worked with artist Robert Lang to install four original origami features.

At the center of each intersection is a square section of the street featuring embedded lines. If those lines were applied to a sheet of paper, the lines would correspond to folds necessary to create an origami animal that is indigenous to Santa Monica. At two intersections, nearby water fountains feature examples of the completed origami (a dragonfly and a frog). At the other intersections, the original works (a sea urchin and a Garibaldi fish) have been replaced with a sea turtle and a flying fish because as folded, the original sculptures were a little too sharp to be near people’s faces when drinking.

For Lang, the installations were a rare opportunity to bring his origami into the public space. He said paper can actually last quite a while when properly cared for, but that care requires it to be kept dry and often behind glass to prevent damage. However, the Santa Monica installations create a very different experience.

“The longevity is there if you use archival papers,” he said of origami. “However, it is fragile. Paper doesn’t like direct sunlight, doesn’t like humidity or wetness. The thing that was exciting to me about this was here was a way of making it not fragile … Here it’s great, they are out there, people can touch it, can handle it much more intimately than they would if it was behind glass.”

The bronze castings in Santa Monica are one of a kind. Lang created actual paper origamis that were coated in wax and then covered in a ceramic shell. The process destroys the original paper, melts the wax and leaves a mold for the molten bronze. Removing the metal from the mold destroys the ceramic case preventing the creation of any additional copies.

For Lang, the crease patterns embedded in the street are just as noteworthy as the finished products they create.

“They are deeply significant,” he said. “They are in some way a plan of the art work but they are another view of the subject, they are another artistic representation of the subject. In a way, they show the interior of the origami as well as the outside surface. It’s kind of the x-ray view of the origami artwork, I loved being able to have that connection as well.”

Lang said his one twinge of regret about the original project was the realization the crease patterns would be inaccessible to many people due to constant traffic. While the scrambles were installed to help with traffic flows the newly allowed diagonal travel path will bring thousands of pedestrians across the works, greatly increasing their visibility and the origami scrambles have been painted in a way that preserves the crease maps.

Lang said the Santa Monica project was one of the greatest artistic experiences of his career and he credits the experience for helping him move into other mediums including an ongoing collaboration with another artist that uses silicon molds to cast multiple bronzes from a single origami.

While Brailsford said she wishes she’d had the chance to work with the city to incorporate the scramble markings into the larger art project, she said she had fond memories of working in Santa Monica and has always hoped to expand the art installation to Arizona.

“The trouble being ahead of the curve is your ideas seem too crazy for people,” she said. “We did all these things but they could have been bolder.”

For more information about Brailsford, visit http://lithomosaic.squarespace.com/robin-brailsford. For more information about Lang and to see renderings of the in-street crease patterns, visit www.langorigami.com/article/santa-monica-bronze-sculptures.


Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...