In 2001, Stephanie Forsythe + Todd MacAllen of molo were shortlisted for an international architectural competition for the city of Aomori. Their first trip to Japan took them to Tokyo University to present models and drawings to Tadao Ando, Jean Nouvel and city officials.
In Japan, we’ve been given intimate experiences of true design: a rare but natural combination of delight, function and beauty. Japanese culture has reinforced our way of working – observational learning, a continual refining of process and the idea that there is strength and beauty in things that seem fragile and ephemeral.
Stephanie Forsythe + Todd MacAllen of molo
Through travels to Northern Japan, Stephanie and Todd came to know Aomori City’s “Nebuta Festival”. This festival is one of the largest in Japan, attracting over 3 million people each year to a city of 300,000. Nebuta is a form of storytelling – mythical heroes, demons and animals come to life as massive paper lanterns, illuminated from within by thousands of lights. Thumping Taiko drums, chanting Haneto dancers, flutes and bells bring the hot August streets to life.
The building is meant to be a mythical House for Nebuta.
12m tall steel ribbons surround the building, deep red and smooth, inspired by northern lacquerware. Each ribbon was individually crafted, then manually adjusted during installation; they are essentially handmade rather than digitally produced.
Within the grey city, the Nebuta House is like a vibrant theatre curtain; it provides a backdrop dramatizing everyday life. Traffic passing by, city workers breaking for lunch and children playing take on a quality of performance.
The screen creates a sheltered pedestrian space – a threshold between the city and world of myth. Shadows cast on the walls and floor seem to create a new and always shifting material. Light, shadow and reflection change throughout the day depending on weather and season.
Narrow streets and alleyways in the city lead toward the building. At these points, the steel ribbons are swept aside at their gravel base to create openings for people to pass through.
In full sunlight the screen literally disappears into the sky and reveals a gradient of reds and golden yellows. At certain angles the ribbons are transparent; at other angles, the screen looks opaque.
Qualities of shadow and light are derived from old Japanese houses. The screens partitioning rooms seperate space but maintain an abstract visual connection; interior screens are treated with a process that blackens the metal and retains the galvanized zinc texture.
The architectural gems that we see in Japan are often built for private clients with deep understanding. Government budgets are low and under constant scrutiny. A hope sustaining us through many difficult challenges was that the building might one day be embraced by the people of Aomori as a house for Nebuta.
The innermost room is the the Nebuta Hall. The Nebuta reside here, suspended in the darkness, waiting for an opportunity to leave the building through a huge sliding door. The open door reveals Aomori Harbour and the Hakkoda mountains beyond. At festival time the Nebuta exit each evening.
+ Project credits / data
Project: The Nebuta House
Location: Northern Japan
Lead design: molo, Todd MacAllen + Stephanie Forsythe
Construction documents + site supervision: d&dt Arch, Frank la Rivière Architects Inc.
Structure: Kanebako Structural Engineers
MEP: PT Morimura & Associates, Ltd.
Type: Culture | Museum
Photographers: molo, Iwan Baan, Shigeo Ogawa