Omer Arbel: Material Thought

New tome captures Omer Arbel’s love of experimentation and innovation.

Phaidon’s recently released monograph on the work of Israel-born, Vancouver-based polymath Omer Arbel reveals an extraordinarily diverse practice spanning architecture, industrial design and sculpture. Through a continual process of experimentation and innovation in both material and technique, Arbel’s highly collaborative and research-driven process results in work that is always intriguing and frequently spectacular.

Arbel graduated with degrees in environmental science and architecture from the University of Waterloo. Formative work experiences with Spanish architects Enric Miralles and Benedetta Tagliabue in Barcelona and Patkau Architects in Vancouver prepared him in 2005 to found not only a studio practice under his own name, but a design and manufacturing company called Bocci that is headquartered in both Vancouver and Berlin.

Series 113, sculptural vessels that test the relationship between glass and copper

These dual ambitions have resulted in a comprehensive catalogue of projects and products that fill the book’s 448 pages. A foreword by Stephanie Rebick, associate curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery, introduces Arbel’s studio practice as one that “obscures the distinction between the traditional categories of art, science, design, architecture and performance. More than objects and built structures, Arbel creates experiences that alter how we navigate our environments.”

The book is structured as a sequence of chapters focused on Arbel’s individual projects interspersed with and illuminated by excerpts of prominent essays and novels authored by the likes of Sigmund Freud, Robert Smithson, Thomas De Quincey, Vladimir Nabokov and Guy Debord—to name a few. While the projects are titled according to a sequential numbering system, they are not presented in chronological order.

Series 14, Arbel’s debut piece, the ambient chandelier launched in 2005,

Arbel’s process of scientific investigation and material exploration/transformation is communicated through a rich selection of photographs, text and drawings of prototypes and finished products alongside images documenting the stages of construction in his architectural work. Glass, copper, concrete, wood and wax are among the elements that comprise the material palette. 113 offers up a series of copper vessels with an irregular and delicate surface and edges—almost lace-like at times—a result of molten copper poured into a blown-glass mold. Differing expansion coefficients cause the glass to eventually shatter as it cools, leaving behind a highly sculptural metal receptacle with a dark, oxidized interior finish. 14 was an early success for Bocci, a cast-glass pendant light hung in groupings on variable lengths of cable. Again a result of experimentation based on the intrinsic properties of the material in question, what was intended to be a flawlessly clear glass orb became a distinctively recognizable form of two fused hemispheres of clear glass bearing a prominent horizontal seam and an aqueous quality. Arbel’s first completed architectural work, 23.2 is a rural house built in 2010 for his partner in Bocci, Randy Bishop. Defined by canting planes of board-formed concrete, the project’s triangular geometries derive from the conceptual artifacts of variably sized beams (uncut and unfinished) milled from a single century-old Douglas fir tree.

These are just a few among the 22 projects featured in the book that illustrate the breadth of Arbel’s practice, presented in a seductive visual format that captures the compelling forms, textures and colours of the work—unequivocally driven by the spirit and process of invention.

23.8. Photo credit Fahim Kassam

Leslie Jen is the former Associate Editor of Canadian Architect and an architecture and design journalist based in Toronto. Her new book Canadian Architecture: Evolving a Cultural Identity is now available.