Sky Building

07Jan08

When I first moved to Osaka, I couldn’t decide whether I liked the Umeda Sky Building (梅田スカイビル) or not. From a distance it looks shiny, blocky, and awkward — kind of like a chrome and glass Transformer that has lost its way. One of the reasons that I think I had an initial distaste for it was that while I liked the weirdness factor of its form, I also felt that it was trying just a little too hard to advertise itself as unique. Of course, you meet people like this at parties all the time; they generally tend to look incredibly interesting, but when you actually get to talking to them you quickly discover that the only thing interesting about them is that they spend all of their time trying to look incredibly interesting.

It turns out, however, that the Sky Building is actually more interesting up close than it initially appears to be from a distance. I think this is because Hiroshi Hara (原広司), the architect who designed the Sky Building, is one of the few architects who seems to be able to design buildings that are both monumental and intimate at the same time. Hara is also the designer of the famous Kyoto Station, and both structures seem to function in similar ways: large and glassy on the outside (and perhaps a bit blocky and clunky), but actually totally inhabitable and filled with spaces that are interesting and navigable at the level of the individual body. In stark contrast to this is a structure like the San Francisco International Airport, which has a stunning façade, but as soon as you’re beyond it you realize immediately that you’re basically just standing in a series of large (and largely uninteresting) boxes.

In order to really experience the Sky Building properly, you need to go inside it. It will cost you 600円 (about six bucks), but it’s totally worth it. First you get an elevator ride up the side of one of the legs of the building and, since the elevator is mostly glass, you get dramatic floating views as you ascend rapidly skyward. After you leave the elevator you ride up a steep escalator that carves its way through the empty center between the two legs of the building. Riding these glass-shrouded escalators produces a strange sense of disembodiment (after all, you’re not supposed to be in the air between two buildings) which is heightened by the fact that the view above is of the empty circular space that sits directly in the center of the structure that connects the two legs of the building.

The top of the Sky Building offers great views (when the weather is nice), but the circular cutout at the center of the viewing area also keeps drawing the eye back into the building itself. The circle itself is lined with highly reflective windows, so that the sky is mirrored on the inside of the building (an especially dramatic effect when the sky is full of clouds), and it can almost seem as if a slice of the firmament has been brought down and spread like butter around this interior circumference.

The photo above was taken on a particularly beautiful day in late March of 2007. Bob and Marlise Tellander had come to Japan on a visit and they stayed at my house for a few days. In addition to a trip to the JFAM (Japapanese Folk Art Museum), where the staff were incredibly kind — we were allowed in even though the museum was officially closed — we also visited the Sky Tower for roundabout views of Osaka. It takes a trip to the top of one of Osaka’s towers — the Sky Building and Tsutenkaku Tower are both good options — to truly get an idea of the city’s urban vastness and density.

This is a view of downtown Umeda as seen from the Sky Building. One of the first times I ever visited the Sky Building was at night, and my friends and I put our hundred yen pieces into the binoculars on offer there and pointed them straight at the building windows in hopes of seeing something juicy. At first we could only see the usual thing — office workers plonked at their desks, working late into the night — but then we swept over to what we took to be a bank of hotel windows. Immediate drama! A woman in a nurse’s uniform! But as it actually turned out, it WAS a woman in a nurse’s uniform. And she was feeding a sad-looking old man, lying in a hospital bed. The building itself turned out to be either a nursing home or a hospital, and being a voyeur to someone else’s misery quickly took the wind out of our sails. If you’d like to have a similarly delightful experience, I’m afraid you’ll have to bring your own pair of binoculars. Someone with a bit of smarts must have figured out that the buildings across the way are a bit too close to have high-powered viewing devices aimed at their windows, so now the binoculars that point in that direction have been covered in tape and you can’t see a thing.

On a brighter note, if you look closely at the photograph above you can see a smaller yellow building with two towers on either side, topped by greenish domes. In the center of this building there’s a kind of cut-out space, and propped on the edge of that space, jutting slightly out into the air, is a small, stone church. I actually performed a wedding there when I first came to Japan and could speak very little Japanese at all. Needless to say, that was an interesting affair.

At night, the hole in the Sky Building is illuminated with a ring of light that slowly flickers, dimming and glowing with a differing intensity, almost as if there was a fire at work. It changes color too, to match the color-changing light of the massive fountain-and-waterfall structure below. The waterfall empties out into a pool that sits at the edge of a sunken garden that is beautifully landscaped and worth walking around in. The garden itself is in the shape of a circle, and is about the same size as the circle at the top of the Sky Tower. Though it’s a bit offset, rather than directly below, this gives the impression that the garden has somehow fallen from the top of the building itself, leaving a gaping hole in its absence. This effect may explain why the observation platform at the top of the tower is called The Floating Garden Observatory, a name that is a bit confusing the first time you visit the top of the tower to discover that there’s not a hint of a plant in sight. The basement of the building is interesting as well — it’s a recreation of the streets of early 20th-century Osaka, complete with alleys, post boxes, a car, and those stand-up cardboard figures with the faces cut out so that you can get funny looking pictures of yourself taken.



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