Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library
Architectural Design

Great attention to detail, inspired by Greco-Roman temple architecture

Exquisitely proportioned masterpiece of Western architecture from the Meiji era

The four columns with Corinthian capitals supporting the large pediment

Neoclassicism, a movement viewing the architecture of classical antiquity as embodying the aesthetic ideal, held sway throughout the West in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was both a reaction to what was perceived as the aesthetic incontinence of baroque architecture, which it supplanted, and a consequence of the growing fascination with archaeology, particularly the excavation of ancient ruins. In pursuit of its aesthetic ideal of harmony and balance, neoclassicism employed traditional styles and techniques to impressive effect.

Architects took their cues from the architectural styles of the Greco-Roman world. Numerous halls, museums, libraries, and so forth were constructed in which the architectural designs of classical antiquity were emulated with considerable accuracy.

Osaka Library, present-day Osaka Prefectural Nakanoshima Library, was completed in 1904 (37th year of the Meiji era). Faithfull to the tenets Greco-Roman temple architecture, this library is a fine example of the late flowering of neoclassicism in Japan.

One ascends to the stately portico, a porch leading to the main entrance at the front of the building, via 19-step stairs. The Corinthian capitals of the portico’s four columns support a large triangular pediment. The building is thought to be influence by libraries in the U.S. Indeed, in everything from its grand conception to its finest details, this splendid building has much in common with American neoclassicism.

Column capitals decorated with the acanthus leaf motif and the pediment with dentils

Acanthus leaves are the motif ornamenting the column capitals. Acanthus mollis is a Mediterranean plant and the national flower of Greece. The Romans took the acanthus motif, so typical of architecture of the Corinthian order, with them wherever they roamed. It could be seen on buildings throughout their empire. The gorgeous acanthus motif of Nakanoshima Library is extraordinarily detailed.

The pediment supported by the columns also features exquisite ornamentation. A dentil, which represents the end of a rafter supporting the roof, is the architectural vestige of a temple of timber construction. Whereas many neoclassical buildings in the Greco-Roman temple style do not have dentils, they are an attractive adornment aligned on the pediment of Nakanoshima Library, faithfully emulating classical models.

Atop the fanlight (a semicircular lunette window) above the main entrance is an emblem-like embellishment, which itself is accompanied by ornamental flourishes on either side. The symmetry of the facade, which extends to the details of the ornamentation, makes Nakanoshima Library outstanding among modern buildings in Japan.

中之島図書館 優雅なドーム
The bronze-sheathed dome is symmetrically semispherical. Series of elegant tall windows extend along the walls.

Another highlight of Nakanoshima Library is the elegant dome at its center. The symmetrical semispherical bronze-sheathed dome is based on Roman models. Together with the main entrance, the dome infuses the building with elegance.

Organized around the central dome, the library appears as a cross on the floor plan. Each side of the building is punctuated by a series of tall windows in an orderly Renaissance style. The two wings comprising reading rooms were added in 1922 (11th year of the Taisho era). Natural extensions of the original building, the wings endow it with spaciousness.

The exquisite proportions of Nakanoshima Library enhance its architectural distinction. It is considered a milestone in the history of Western architecture in Japan, which began in the mid-19th century. Far from being a soulless copy of classical models, this superbly proportioned building is nourished aesthetically and philosophically by the classical tradition that it faithfully interprets for a later era.

Main Hall with a wealth of ornamental flourishes

Whereas the exterior faithfully adheres to classical models, the Main Hall, that is, the domed atrium , is in a baroque style with a wealth of ornamental flourishes.

The atrium’s curvilinear wall mirrors the shape of the dome. At the center of the space is an impressive imperial staircase that widens as it descends and divides into two symmetrical flights as it ascends to the next floor. In the atrium the combination of the gently curving staircase and the walkway around the curvilinear wall changes one’s impression depending on one’s vantage point, achieving a superb visual impact. Natural light streaming through the oculus completes the overall effect as the ambience changes depending on the time of day.

The use of Japanese timber for the staircase and the cloistered walkway is noteworthy. Whereas marble would have been used in Europe, the timber endows the interior with a quintessentially Japanese look and feel. Although more than 100 years have passed since the carpenters completed their work, the structure is virtually free of distortion, attesting to the exceptional quality of the timber.

Japanese timber is used for the staircase and the walkway.
Topped by a stained glass oculus, the dome is a hemisphere divided into 24 geometric segments.

Gaze up at the dome and you will see the geometric forms created by dividing a hemisphere into 24 parts. Motifs depicting amphorae (ancient containers) and fronds of the date palm are repeated around the interior of the dome, creating a dreamily exotic atmosphere.

The wall on the third floor features ornamentation that appears to be supporting the dome, but in fact is there for purely aesthetic considerations. The design of a pair of columns is a stylistic flourish typical of the baroque. The wall at the front is a gallery where two sculptures are displayed on oval pedestals, which are also quintessentially baroque since the word “baroque” is thought by some scholars to derive from a word used to refer to pearls that are imperfectly round.

Moreover, festoons on the frieze (the wide central section part of an entablature) above the gallery and carved wooden capital ornaments applied to wood columns supporting the cloistered walkway are detailed and gorgeous, forever fresh in the eye of the beholder.

Exhibited on the wall gallery are plaques bearing messages from the library’s benefactor Kichizaemon Tomoito Sumitomo and sculptures by Seibo Kitamura who is best known for the Nagasaki Peace Statue.

Items displayed on the wall gallery are also full of interest. Two eye-catching copper plaques, one bigger than the other, are prominently displayed above the first flight of stairs. They bear the words of Kichizaemon Tomoito Sumitomo, the 15th head of the Sumitomo family, who paid for the library’s construction and subsequent extension, explaining his intentions as a benefactor. They were cast so as to perfectly fit the curvature of the wall.

To the right and left of the plaques are sculptures by Seibo Kitamura, who is best known for the Nagasaki Peace Statue. The statue on the right, known as the Yajin Statue, is that of a Greek youth grasping a staff. He represents passion and wildness. In contrast, the stature on the left, known as the Bunjin Statue, is that of a Greek youth gazing at an open book. He represents reflection and intelligence.

Look carefully and you will be able to make out a series of eight plaques set in the frieze, each bearing the name of an outstanding thinker or literary artist. In clockwise order, starting high above the staircase, the names are Sugawara no Michizane, Confucius, Socrates, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Kant, Goethe, and Darwin. It is to be hoped that these intellectual titans representing the quest for enlightenment will inspire all who use the library.

A world of books, a veritable storehouse of knowledge for future generations

Gazing through the tall windows one can admire the portico with its acanthus motif.

Directly above the entrance hall is the Memorial Room with its beautiful lunette window (fanlight). The timber window frame contributes to the serene ambience of the room.

The panes in the fanlight are the original handmade glass. As one peers upward through the fanlight, a slight distortion of the outside world is apparent, prompting the thought that this building is not of the present era but steeped in history. False beams run along the upper part of the wall and the interplay of light and shadow is pleasing to the eye.

This room has been put to various uses over the years. At one time it was an ordinary reading room. It also saw service as a reading room reserved exclusively for the cream of Osaka society. And for a while it was a reception room for distinguished guests from overseas. Today, the Memorial Room, furnished with items that have been used since the library first opened, including draped curtains for the fanlight and a table and chairs. The décor of this room conveys the atmosphere of a bygone era.

The right and left wings, extensions added some years after completion of the original building, mainly comprise reading rooms. From their tall windows one can admire the portico with its acanthus motif and the nearby trees.

Running through the reading rooms are a series of columns, each resting on a pedestal and supporting a beam. The tapered columns whose diameter decreases with height from the floor are a example of entasis, a stylistic and engineering technique widely employed in Greco-Roman architecture. Strolling through these reading rooms, it is as if one were in the Platonic Academy. Here, one is immersed in a world of books, a veritable storehouse of knowledge for future generations.