Construction began April 2009 on a unique and sculptural building on the waterfront of Aomori City in Northern Japan. Twelve meter tall ribbons of steel make up a screen that completely encircles the building, with a shifting pattern of light and shadow that changes through the day and night. This mysterious volume enclosed by the ribbon screen will house a deep dark dwelling space for the giant paper characters and creatures of Aomori city’s famous Nebuta festival.
For anyone not yet familiar with Nebuta, it is one of Japan’s three largest festivals and is an incredible event to experience. Nebuta is a form of storytelling, where larger than life heroes, demons and animals from history and myth, come magically to life in luminous three dimensional forms created from paper and light. During the first week of August each year, the Nebuta floats light up the night as they are paraded through the city streets of Aomori by hundreds of thousands of dancers moving and chanting to the deep sounds of the taiko drums and ethereal music of bamboo flutes. Literally millions of visitors are drawn to Aomori for the festival. Visitors experience something universally human, almost primal in spirit, in the release of energy that happens during this deeply cultural, Japanese festival. The festival is indeed intended to rouse the sleepy spirits of people from the heat of summer, to prepare for the harvest.
With the creation of a new building dedicated to the Nebuta, visitors will now be able to visit Aomori at other times of year to experience the skillful craft of the Nebuta Artists at work. Each year the Nebuta are created anew, with a design and construction process that spans all the seasons of the year. In the spring time when the Nebuta are still pure white, unpainted washi they have a special sculptural beauty and earlier in the year the impressive, intricate frames of wire and thin wood strips can be witnessed. A calendar of events will be planned to celebrate and view the craft of Nebuta within the dark halls of the Nebuta House.
The Nebuta House will also archive and exhibit the history of Nebuta, with estimated origins as far back as the eighth century. Historical drawings, photographs and artifacts will give a deeper understanding of the unique local culture of Nebuta as it has evolved over the years. The Nebuta is very much a living part of contemporary culture in Aomori, and as a creative art form it continues to evolve with the creative spirit of the individual Nebuta artists that bring their own style and inspiration to the tradition of telling stories with Nebuta. It is this creative spirit of the Nebuta artists that has pushed the art form to such an impressive size (9 x 7 x 5.5 meters), with skillful craft and unique painterly expressions that have made the Aomori Nebuta famous throughout Japan and the world. The new building will celebrate and support the work of contemporary and future generations of Nebuta artists as well as display works of other contemporary art, particularly art works inspired by the traditions and materials of Nebuta craft, storytelling, music and dance.
The design of the building has one main identity - a house for Nebuta. The Nebuta are creatures of light and their house will be a dark place of shadows where the Nebuta float in darkness. This is a unique building where humans enter this world of giants, a place for storytelling and imagination, from an upper level viewing platform. The upper level viewing platform brings people face to face with real Nebuta, a very different experience from standing on the ground and looking up at Nebuta during festival time. For children especially, the Nebuta will be even more magical and alive from this eye to eye perspective (not being able to see the wheels on the ground below). From the viewing platform visitors descend the ramp, into the Nebuta Hall and look back at the space from a new perspective.
People can then freely explore the current Nebuta exhibit which will constantly change with the seasonal cycle of making Nebuta, preparing for the festival and then celebrating the winning Nebuta of each year. No two visits to the Nebuta House will be exactly the same experience.
Within the shadows of the Nebuta House there are a variety of spaces such as a theatre that can be used for performances of many different types, utilizing the world of Nebuta as a backdrop or integral to the performance. Alternately, the theaters large doors can be closed off to create a theatre with a more intimate stage. There is also flexible space for community events and changing exhibits that offer the unique possibility of an atmosphere and connections to Nebuta or alternately views to the sea through the unique ribbon screen. A seaside restaurant will be located at the level of the wood deck and walkway that travels along the sea wall. As this restaurant is part of the Nebuta house it will offer a unique atmosphere and glimpses of the Nebuta within the main hall. In the creative spirit of this local art form, it is intended that the restaurant serve fresh local, seasonal ingredients, prepared in a mix of traditionally inspired, creative and sometimes surprising new dishes. The restaurant will be Aomori’s first to be located directly on the waterfront and will offer views to the sea and opportunity to sit at tables out on the wooden deck in good weather.
The Nebuta House is scheduled to be complete by January 2011, following the arrival of the Shinkansen route (bullet train) extending all the way to Aomori. The Nebuta House itself is located adjacent to the local downtown train station, and is visible from the train station. As visitors approach the unique sculptural form of the building from the train station, the building and its West plaza frame a view of Aomori Bay and the Hakkoda-maru (the former passenger ferry to Hokkaido - turned floating Museum). The twelve meter tall ribbons of steel that make a screen, completely encircling the building, create a covered outdoor walking space around the full perimeter of the building with a shifting pattern of light and shadow that changes through the day and night. Each of the 820 ribbons is uniquely shaped and twisted to create openings for light, views and passageways for people. The screen provides a protective buffer form the cold winter winds and strong sun of summer. The screen is inspired by the vertical patterns of light and shadow of the primeval Beech wood forest surrounding Aomori. The steel of the ribbon screen will have a patina of deep rusty orange-red that will be both bold and natural on the working waterfront of the city and particularly striking as the seasons change with the surrounding colours of the leaves in fall, the white blossoms of apples in the spring and white blanket of snow in winter. The ribbon screen is also related to the screens used to layer the connection of interior and exterior space in the traditional Japanese house and creates the perimeter space of the engawa. In this case the Engawa of the Nebuta House will provide a strong visual experience to act as a threshold between the everyday life of the city and the world of imagination inside the Nebuta House.
The Nebuta House will be the most recent addition to a network of buildings dedicated to the creative arts in Aomori prefecture, including the ACAC (Aomori Contemporary Art Centre), The Aomori Museum of Art and the Towada Art Centre. Each of these four art centers have the integrity to draw international attention for both their architecture and the artistic collections and programs that they house. Together these art centers make Aomori a special destination for people interested in the arts, with the Nebuta House being the only location of the four that is in the city centre of Aomori, connecting to the daily life of local citizens and bringing visitors into Aomori City.