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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Delivering hope through music

Fumio Kanda

Oct. 26, 2017

We take a look at a unique music venue and the man behind it. A Swiss music director was inspired by his love of Japan, and driven by his desire to do something after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Is it a gigantic kidney bean? Or a floating doughnut? An eggplant-colored "balloon" that sprang up at a trendy Tokyo shopping complex is actually the world’s first inflatable and movable concert hall.

It is called Ark Nova or "new arc" in Latin. It was assembled in Tokyo for the first time and opened to the public for a 16-day concert series.

Between 2013 and 2015, Ark Nova traveled the Tohoku region of Northeastern Japan to deliver music to people suffering from the 2011 disaster.

On March 11th 2011, at 2:46pm, a massive earthquake struck off Japan's northeastern shore and a tsunami swept away towns and cities. Japan was plunged into sorrow.

The disaster came as a blow to Michael Haefliger, director of Switzerland's long-running “Lucerne Music Festival”.

He had toured Japan many times and developed a personal connection with the country.

"Destroyed the houses were blown away. Wrecked ships were blown away by Tsunami," he says. "I was strongly moved and motivated to do something to make contribution for the catastrophe."

One day after the unprecedented disaster, he made a phone call to Masahide Kajimoto, his Japanese music promoter friend. That set the Ark Nova project in motion. The two men believe in the power of music.

"The top priority immediately after the disaster was lifesaving operations," says Kajimoto. "But we thought that later on, there must be something we can do to help people through music and arts. I told Michael we should make plans and wait for the right moment."

They spoke to another friend Arata Isozaki, a renowned Japanese architect. They immediately came up with an idea.

"Houses were swept away as were schools and community centers," says Isozaki. "Everything was destroyed. So the key to this concept was that we would bring both music and the music hall to the people."

Another friend joined the team, UK-based Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor.

The team was inspired by folklore from the Tohoku region and came up with the concept of "revitalization". Isozaki and Kapoor swapped sketches until an idea took form.

Ark Nova stands 18 meters high, 30 meters across, and 36 meters deep. The shape is smooth and round.

Isozaki wanted to create a concert hall shaped like a heart, where an audience could feel a heartbeat symbolizing the meaning of life.

"They have to continue to live and they have somehow to feel that the life was going on," says Haefliger. "We felt that we would create some positive news for Tohoku to bring a hope."

Two years after the disaster, much of the rubble had been cleared but tens of thousands were in temporary shelters. Many could not return to their homes because of Fukushima's nuclear crisis.

In September 2013, “Ark Nova” was finally ready to begin its voyage. It has a shell made from a single membrane of polyester less than 1 millimeter thick. It can be assembled and inflated in just one hour. The hall can accommodate an audience of 500.

The Ark Nova's first stop was the town of Matsushima in Miyagi Prefecture, known for its beautiful bay surrounded by pine trees.

The stars of that year were those perhaps hit hardest by the disasters, local children.

Famed musician Ryuichi Sakamoto conducted a youth orchestra the children formed.

The following year, the Arc moved to the city of Sendai. People came from across northeastern Japan to attend the concerts.

For the final year of the tour, the Lucerne Festival Ark Nova sailed to Fukushima in 2015.

Each year, world-class performers came from the worlds of classical, jazz, and traditional Japanese performing arts.

"When people came out of Ark Nova, everybody looked so much happier and moved," says Fukushima resident Kiyoshi Konno. "Music touched my heart and I could feel the sense of rebirth inside of me."

Six years and seven months after the disaster, Ark Nova made its first appearance in Tokyo, with the aim of remembering what happened, and continuing support for the people reflected by it.

A charity concert series was held for 16 days. Some people from Fukushima attended, among them Fukushima Mayor Kaoru Kobayashi.

"I am very grateful that Ark Nova is spreading the message that we are still recovering from the disaster," says Kobayashi.

"It’s a symbol of the catastrophe of Tohoku and the people of Tohoku," says Haefliger. "This project proved that we can do something artistic to areas that have suffered a lot."

Ark Nova was born out of catastrophe. But Haefliger and his friends conceived of it as full of life and music, with the aim of are rebuilding of hope and spirit.