On the grounds of the Bella Vista resort in Onomichi, Hiroshima stands a unique building – Hiroshi Nakamura and NAP Architects’ Ribbon Chapel. It sits within the trees of one of the resorts parks, upon a hill that commands panoramic views of the Inland Sea of Japan. But this chapel is even more beautiful than the view.
Nakamura and NAP Architects have designed many unique buildings around Japan. Throughout their work you can see a focus on interaction with nature and a very modern and uniquely Japanese style.
The Ribbon Chapel is both a literal and metaphorical embodiment of the union of marriage. The intertwining spiral staircases represent the journey of marriage, crossing paths and supporting each other as they ascend to become one at the summit. A single stairway built in this fashion would be unstable, so as a couple support each other throughout their lives and marriage the two staircases support each other and the building.
The dual staircases also proffer a change to the well enshrined ceremony of marriage. Nakamura’s vision is that the bride and groom will ascend the two separate staircases, while buoyed by the love of their family and friends in the chapel below, and meet at the top. There, as Nakamura explained “[they] ask for heaven’s permission to join as one, and declare their marriage. The two, who have lived separate lives, then walk back down the stairway together. ” 1
[they] ask for heaven’s permission to join as one, and declare their marriage. The two, who have lived separate lives, then walk back down the stairway together.
It seems to me that, perhaps unconsciously, the design of the chapel reflects the ideals of Japanese Shintoism. By being sited in in a wooded park, and the openness to nature allowed by the glass walls it calls to mind Shinto shrines which are usually located within natural surrounds. These shrines venerate the gods (Kami) which reside within nature. This is enhanced by focusing the internal layout of the building on a symbol tree that stands behind the altar as many Shinto shrines venerate great trees which have stood for hundreds of years.
But it is not just the thought behind this building that is captivating, it is a magnificent piece of architecture as well. The spiral staircases create a dramatic, flowing and ever inconsistent shape that support the glass walls. The outer is clad in a Titanium-Zinc alloy which is both striking and resistant to the sea breezes. Ceilings, walls and window sashes use the same alloy to “unify the design by means of a single material.” 1
Even the engineering of the chapel is inspired. Without going into too much detail, it was foreseen that the building would shift rotationally by up to 30mm when the construction supports were removed (details here). Therefore, the internal poles were installed at an angle that would become vertical when the building rotated.
The scale of thought and metaphor in this building is inspiring. To modernise something as entrenched in ritual as a wedding chapel and to embed it with the meaning of the ceremony is quite a feat. Combined with the incredible details of engineering, materials and craftsmanship it makes the Ribbon Chapel a unique building within Japan and the world. I look forward to seeing what wonder Nakamura creates next.
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Principal use, Chapel
Structure, S structure
Site area, 2500㎡
Total floor area, 80㎡
Structure design, Ove Arup & Partners Lt
Photographs, Koji Fujii / Nacasa & Partners Inc Cic.