Merging Form & Function, The Nebuta House Captures the Japanese Spirit

Welcome to ねぶたの家 ワ・ラッセ), a museum and center for creative culture in the heart of Aomori.

In 2002, having only studied Japanese architecture in books, Todd MacAllen and his creative partner at Molo Design, Stephanie Forsythe, began what started as yet another residential space in Aomori, Japan and transformed it into a creative community space that goes to the heart of the city, and taps into the very marrow of the nation’s culture.

It was certainly an auspicious start. The pair competed for the project in an international architecture competition that was judged by the legendary Tadao Ando and equally illustrious Jean Nouvel, and won.

The project opened just before the devastating earthquake and Tsunami hit in March 2011 and was subsequently shut down. Nebuta House reopened its doors again a few weeks ago. I spoke with architect Todd MacAllen about the mercurial nature of the Nebuta House project, its new function as a community cultural space, and what he learned about the Japanese spirit along the way.

The Nebuta House started as residential project in 2002. When and why did you and Forsyth change direction?

After we initially started working on the project, the city invited us to assess it again and look at other possibilities. Over time, we realized, housing wasn’t what needed to be looked at as much. We realized there was an opportunity for a more public use of the Nebuta House.

It’s a relatively small city, with fishing and some industry, but not a lot of public space. It’s unique in that there are two really great museums, but they’re more about fine art.

Whereas the Nebuta Festival, wherein gigantic illuminated and animated floats made out of Japanese paper are paraded around the city in early August, is more a celebration of folkloric art.

Seeing the festival for the first time definitely changed things. We experienced it like children, with that kind of open mind and delight. Sometimes the Nebuta [floats] are terrifying and other times amazing. It’s strange and mysterious, and we wanted the Nebuta House to have that same mysterious quality, as well.

The images from the festival are spectacular. The Nebuta floats seem to represent animals, monsters, and demons fighting to the death with, kind of, anime-like human counterparts. It is quite, wow! How does the building fit into all that?

It isn’t necessarily a building. We think of it as a house for the Nebuta. They’re creatures, but they are depicting a story. There are several mythical beings housed in the Nebuta House, but they’re almost the same – one mystical entity. When you’re entering the Nebuta house, you really are entering their dwelling.

Nebuta House opened right before the earthquake and Tsunami, closed for a time, and recently reopened. While Aomori was not directly impacted by the devastation, what has that experience been like for you, of re-launching this project post-recovery?

They closed it to save energy, but it also doubles as a shelter. So they prepared for that, though in the end it wasn’t necessary. From what I experienced, the standards for preparedness and post-disaster clean-ups are quite high.

In Japan, there seems to be a collective understanding that you wouldn’t necessarily expect someone else to come in and clean up for you. The community gets together and does the work without waiting for the government or anyone else to come in and tell them how to do it.

Judging from the before and after clean-up pics that have been making their rounds on the internet, it’s quite remarkable the progress these communities across Japan have made.

And now with the Nebuta House, northern Japan has a new community heart to call home.


Images: courtesy of Molo Design; The Daily Telegraph


K. Emily Bond

K. Emily Bond is the Shelter Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in southern Spain, reporting on trends in art, design, sustainable living and lifestyle.