Nebuta House is a museum and centre for creative culture in the Northern Japanese city of Aomori. Over the project’s course, the program evolved from housing and community facilities into a unique cultural building inspired by the craftsmanship and spirit of Aomori’s Nebuta Festival.

The festival, one of Japan’s largest, is a form of storytelling during which heroes, demons and animals from history and myth come to life as large-scale, paper lanterns (Nebuta) illuminated from within.

The building is a house for these mythical creatures, functionally meant to share the tradition, archive the history and nurture the future of this unique cultural art form.

The building is enclosed by twisted steel ribbons, each shaped to create variation: openings for light, areas of opacity, views, or opportunities for pedestrian circulation.

The ribbons were individually crafted during prefabrication then manually adjusted on-site during installation.

Inside, a shadowy dwelling for the Nebuta is shaped by the layers of screens and volumes of ancillary rooms.

The interior is black – like a black box theatre – the volumetric juxtaposition accommodates many possible uses and perspectives.

The abstraction of materiality, detail and colouring of the building allow visitors an intimate focus on the story being told.

Luminous Nebuta appear suspended in the darkness of the hall, their vibrant colours reflected only in the rippled, water-like floor.

Giant sliding doors divide and connect the main exhibit area from the theatre and multi-purpose spaces and provide a dynamic visual connection to the Nebuta during musical and theatrical performances, encouraging flexible use.

During events, the towering Nebuta exit and enter the building through another sliding door. When sitting in the theater with both sets of sliding doors open, one can see the vibrant Nebuta below, and beyond, Aomori harbour and the Hakkōda mountains.

The exterior screen creates a sheltered perimeter space called the engawa, acting as a threshold between the contemporary world of the city and the world of myth.

Shadows cast on the walls and floor through the exterior ribbons have the effect of creating a new material. Shadow and light become another screen – the convergence of material, light, shadow and reflection changing with the sun and weather.

“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”. Forsythe and MacAllen (molo design)

Despite the challenges of designing an important cultural building while respecting a conservative budget, the evolution of the building’s type and program stands as symbolic foreshadowing of the many possibilities for use.

Already, programming has demonstrated a broad range of uses: workshops, conferences and new cultural events are taking place.

Perhaps the building can help to usher the time-honoured tradition of Nebuta into a contemporary era, offering a place to share ideas and bring creative minds together, even artists of different cultures and disciplines.

Aomori recently held its first winter Nebuta festival. Visitors and locals alike gathered in the glow of handmade snow lanterns, participating in a snowy theatre against the vibrant red of the Nebuta House.

The Nebuta House site occupies 13,012 m2 on the waterfront of Aomori Harbour. The total building area is 4,340 m2 with a gross floor area of 6,708 m2 which includes the engawa, utility basement, two levels to accommodate the program of exhibit hall, theatre, multi-purpose / music rooms, restaurant and gift shop.

More than 820 steel ribbons, 12 m tall, encircle the glass-and-steel structure. The locally prefabricated ribbons are powder-coated deep red (inspired by the traditional local lacquerware) and have been installed using a multi-point connection system, manually adjusted on-site. 

Location: Aomori 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.
Photographers:molo, Iwan Baan, Shigeo Ogawa

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