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Back in 2013, a colossal aubergine egg landed in the cedar forests of Japan’s east coast.
In collaboration with Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, British sculptor Anish Kapoor designed an inflatable, portable concert hall for the nationwide tour of the Lucerne Festival. The project, dubbed “Ark Nova”, forms a compelling case study for architects considering the use of tensile fabric for large-scale cultural projects. Kapoor is known for producing the most gigantic of abstract installations, and he took his craft to a whole new scale with this work: the bulbous form was designed to accommodate more than 500 people within its polyester membrane.
Bird’s-eye view of Ark Nova. Photo via.
The outlandish structure encouraged a whole host of associations; around the web, comparisons were made to a super-sized plum, an inside-out circus tent, the lost egg of Godzilla, and even the womb of a presumably quite huge and supernatural being. Kapoor, on the other hand, uses fundamentally more architectural terminology to describe the Ark: “The structure defines a space for community and for music in which color and form enclose.”
Kapoor’s sketch and model of Ark Nova. Photo via.
This sense of enclosure, and a preoccupation with color and light, is familiar territory for Kapoor: he concocted a similarly extraordinary tensile fabric structure within the Nave of the Grand Palais in Paris in 2011. Called “Leviathian,” this previous work set a precedent for the Ark in terms of its engineering — Kapoor stated that the construction technique used in its formulation had taken 20 years to perfect.
The artist described his desire to create a space that has an emotional impact on its inhabitants: “Visitors will be invited to walk inside the work, to immerse themselves in colour, and it will, I hope, be a contemplative and poetic experience. Designed using the most advanced technologies, the work will not merely speak to us visually, but will lead the visitor on a journey of total sensorial and mental discovery.”
Leviathan. Photo via.
It follows, then, that the experiential qualities of the interior space bore a greater significance than the sculpture’s peculiar external form, and this is most definitely the case with Ark Nova. Viewed from above, the purple hue of its stretched skin appears to a bold choice, fighting for attention against its natural surroundings. However, once inside, the selection of such a distinctive hue becomes clear: like an enormous pane of stained glass, the deep color dissipates the bright light that permeates the membrane, lending the space a calming, cathedral-like quality.
There are functional challenges that come along with the design of the Ark: spherical or egg-shaped spaces are not ideal for acoustically sensitive programs such as theatre, opera or music concerts (see my qualms about OMA’s spherical theatre in Taiwan). However, this issue was addressed ingeniously: Lucerne Festival leaders proposed using cedar wood from damaged trees in the surrounding ancient forest as material for acoustic reflectors and boards, as well as for the seating within the hall. This salvaging of treasured timber is synonymous with the project’s overriding aim: to act as a symbol for recovery after Japan’s great earthquake.
The Ark’s unique ability to be deflated and transported via truck meant it could be enjoyed by thousands of Japanese people across the region, and potentially further afield: this is a cultural bubble of hope, and beyond its luminous exterior there lies a profoundly beautiful message. In the words of Arata Isozaki quoting Japanese folklore,
“With a bow in hand,
Board to a vessel,
An arrival of a stranger,
Revived one’s livelihood.”
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