Ten years ago, Vancouver-based Molo Design won an international competition – judged by architects Tadao Ando and Jean Nouvel, no less – to build a large urban housing and community complex in Aomori, a city in northern Japan. But over the course of the project, something fairly standard morphed into something magical. Located in front of Aomori’s train station where the city meets the sea, the completed project – Nebuta House — is home to mythical creatures.
A museum and cultural centre (comprising an exhibit hall, theatre, music rooms and more), Nebuta House was inspired by the craftsmanship and spirit of Aomori’s Nebuta Festival; one of Japan’s largest, the festival 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 not only provides a home for these mythical creatures, but also archives the history and nurtures the future of this unique cultural art form.
All four sides of Nebuta House are enclosed with screens made from 12-metre-tall, twisted ribbons of steel. Each of the 820 ribbons is uniquely shaped and twisted to create openings for light, views and people to move through. While the screen is a simple shade of burnt orange-red, matched to the colour and sheen of local lacquerware, it can give the illusion of multiple hues depending on the quality of light and time of day.
An abstraction of the patterns of wind and weather, the screen was inspired by the vertical patterns of light and shadow of the primeval beechwood forest surrounding Aomori. It also has origins in the screens used to layer the connection of interior and exterior space in the traditional Japanese house, creating a perimeter space called the engawa. With connected but abstract views of the city and an intense colour immersion, the engawa of Nebuta House acts as a threshold between the everyday life of the city and the world of myth and imagination within.