Made in Japan

Project Nebuta House, Aomori, Japan
Architects molo with d&dt Arch and Frank la Rivière Architects
Text Ian Chodikoff
Photos courtesy of molo, unless otherwise noted

Rarely does a young, emerging architecture firm win a major global design commission. However, Dominique Perrault won the competition for the National Library of France in 1989 when he was just 36 years old. That same year, when Craig Dykers, Christoph Kapeller and Kjetil Thorsen were in their late twenties and early thirties, they entered a competition for the new Alexandria Library–and won. Today, their firm Snøhetta is a wildly successful global practice.
Enter Vancouver-based design couple Stephanie Forsythe and Todd MacAllen. In 2002, the thirtysomething pair won an international competition for the design of what was initially meant to be a $150-million housing and community project in Aomori, Japan. Despite the frustrations of designing for a client in a completely different culture, and watching the project being downgraded to a $35-million budget (including sitework, building and exhibitions), the result is a resounding success. However, the couple’s triumph in realizing this architectural commission has provided Forsythe and MacAllen with the confidence to capitalize on their strengths by developing small-scale design elements through the vehicle of industrial design.
Even before winning the Aomori design competition, the Dalhousie University architectural graduates were exploring new potentials of growing a practice centred on designing objects rather than buildings. By late 2003, Forsythe and MacAllen had established a design firm called molo with Robert Pasut, a long-time friend of MacAllen’s. Today, molo is a thriving studio that designs, manufactures and distributes its own line of furniture, lighting and housewares. The company is probably best known for its glass tea sets, lighting and softwall product-a flexible modular partition system of cellular paper construction. “At the time of the competition, it was pretty clear that we were going to be working for ourselves,” notes MacAllen, “We wanted to work on our own projects that we could initiate ourselves.” The couple gained a lot from their Nebuta House experience in Japan, including valuable lessons in material exploration and the nuances of creating appropriately habitable spaces through good design.
Since its completion in January 2011, Nebuta House has become a significant addition to Aomori, a waterfront city of 300,000 located on the northern tip of Honshu, the main island of Japan. Overlooking Mutsu Bay, the building is a simple two-storey box clad in over 820 12-metre-tall twisted red metal ribbons that, when seen in their entirety, resemble a large sweeping curtain. The ribbons were prefabricated in a factory before being shaped and installed on site by hand using a multi-point connection system. Much of the project’s character is derived from its façade, which appears to twist and pull, opening up at key locations to reveal the corner lobby or various entrances. The exterior metal screen appears transparent from some angles, while at other times the ribbons seem more densely aligned and prominent, shielding the passerby’s view of the interior. A secondary screen of galvanized metal further restricts light entering the black-box theatre, workshops and display spaces centred around Aomori’s Nebuta Festival–a week-long celebration held at the beginning of every August. The festival draws thousands of participants who delight in the elaborate parade of enormous hand-painted lanterns depicting samurai warriors, demons and animals.
Nebuta House presented many challenges for molo. It took several visits just to uncover the distinct culture of Japan, its local politics, and the significance of the Nebuta Festival itself. Even after molo was initially awarded the city-sponsored commission in 2002, there was no desire to establish a permanent building for the festival. But once the need to design a permanent home for the festival was established, a client group emerged along with various ad hoc committees, resulting in political infighting that only served to complicate and jeopardize the project.
Construction began in March 2007 and by early 2009, the local government’s backing of the project’s curtain-like exterior became uncertain. A change of local government ensued and once the metal cladding was approved, molo accelerated the installation so that its dismantling would be unlikely once the public became accustomed to its presence.
Forsythe and MacAllen’s exhausting experience in Japan–much of which was beyond their control–has only strengthened the couple’s resolve to focus their efforts on intimately scaled product design. Remaining interested in Japan, their firm is currently adapting its softwall partitions to provide privacy–and more importantly, dignity–to those who were left homeless by the tsunami and earthquake that hit Japan last March. Understanding cultural differences while working through small-scale design challenges may prove to be the most effective way to ensure the long-term success of their firm. CA

Client City of Aomori, Japan
Architect Team molo (Stephanie Forsythe, Todd MacAllen, Robert Pasut, Kan A., Atsushi N., Duncan Wright, Kevin James, Adam Sharkey, Takuya Shikanai, Mathew-Arthur Bulford); d&dt Arch (Yasuo Nakata, Atsuo Yano); Frank la Rivière Architects (Frank la Rivière, Yoko Mima, Paola Itikawa Otsuka)
Structural Kanebako Structural Engineers
Mechanical PT Morimura & Associates Ltd., Shikani-Daiki Construction JV
Electrical PT Morimura & Associates Ltd., Yoden-Utou Construction JV
Acoustics Nittobo Acoustic Engineering Co. Ltd
Construction Kajima-Fujimoto-Kurahashi Construction JV (Masato Shinohe, Tadahiro Watanabe, Hajime Mizoe, Kenji Hirai, Hiromasa Akama)
Area 6,710 M2
Budget $35 M (site, building, and exhibits)
Completion January 2011