Gaudi-inspired piece on the rooftop in Osaka
OSAKA--It was an e-mail inquiry from a reader that alerted us to an intriguing piece of art sitting quietly atop a building in Honmachi, the bustling business district here in Osaka.
Called the "Honmachi Building," the modest nine-story structure stands at the corner of Sakai-suji and Honmachi-dori streets amid a sea of skyscrapers. If you peer upwards from the foot of the building, there is no inkling of any rooftop art. You need to move away and, from a distance, train your eyes on the roof, and then you will see it.
It's quite a monument. Stars seem to be dancing around a huge ring, and the lines are crude and simple, as if they were created by the clumsy hands of a giant. The colorful work certainly stands out, loud and unique, against the stark backdrop of the concrete cityscape.
The building caretaker was uncertain as to the pedigree of the artwork on the building's roof. "If I'm not wrong, I think someone told me that it was the work of some great artist," he said. "But the building has changed hands, so I am not so sure about the history."
None of the men in business suits walking around the neighborhood could help, either.
The building was built in 1961 by Toyobo Co., a major Osaka-based textile company with a long history, before it was eventually sold to a real estate company in 2007
The next stop, then, was a visit to the Toyobo head office in Dojima, Osaka.
"We have no one left who actually knows about the artwork, but we found some old records," an official explained. An in-house magazine dated June 10, 1961, carried a report on the piece. There was a photograph of the work with the caption, "By Kenji Imai, professor of Waseda University." Furthermore, there was a note, "The design was inspired by (Toyobo) textile." The trail was old, but not cold.
Kenji Imai (1895-1987) was a notable Japanese architect who designed such well-known buildings as the Tokagakudo Concert Hall in the gardens of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo (1966), and the Twenty-six Martyrs Museum in Nagasaki (1962). Imai was greatly impressed by the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, and Imai is credited with introducing Gaudi's work here in Japan.
The mystery piece by Imai was titled "Itoguruma no Genso" (Reverie of the spinning wheel). The tableau stands 10 meters high, featuring a spinning wheel and a bolt of cloth, unfurled, surrounded by the moon and stars.
Kazumitsu Sakai knows a lot about Osaka's modern architecture. He is curator at the Osaka Museum of History, in Chuo Ward.
"The bold form and the technique employed, creating the image by assembling smashed up tile pieces, clearly show influences from Gaudi," Sakai said. "There are a lot of famous pieces by Imai that remain in Tokyo and the metropolitan area, and Kyushu. I am pretty sure that the piece in Osaka is the only Imai representation in the Kansai region."
Back in 1961, when the Honmachi Building went up, the area was the undisputed textile center, known as "Senba." In its heyday, according to statistics compiled by the former Ministry of International Trade and Industry, Osaka textile wholesalers were handling more than 50 percent of the nation's total annual sales revenue.
"Japan was going through postwar recovery," Sakai mused. "Buildings were cropping up everywhere in central Osaka. Placing a monument with a warm handmade touch on the rooftop was a sign that the company was aiming for an ideal city--not all cold and inorganic."
The huge spinning wheel is a monument that tells the story of Senba--a sort of quilt of memories that triggers pictures of the rise of the textile hub and Osaka's road to recovery.
"Maybe it's not the most famous monument, but it definitely deserves to be called a cultural heritage of the Kansai area," Sakai said. "I hope more people will stop by, take a moment to look up, and take it in."
Kensuke Imai, 82, Kenji Imai's oldest son, shared some memories of his architect father.
"My father was always drawing sketches as he sat in the living room, dreaming and making plans. We recovered sketches and plaster models of the 'Itoguruma no Genso' that were kept in his home and his studio. As an architect, he was careful about respecting the environment of the people who actually used the building. I think he wanted to create a relaxing space on the rooftop for people who worked in the busy commercial center. I am thrilled to hear that people are still interested in (his work)."