Shoji Sadao, Quiet Hand Behind Two Visionaries, Dies at 9211/14/2019
Shoji Sadao, an architect whose behind-the-scenes talent helped bring to life the innovations of two 20th-century visionaries, R. Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi, died on Nov. 3 in Tokyo. He was 92.
His family said the cause was heart and kidney failure.
Mr. Sadao met Fuller, the noted designer, author and theorist who died in 1983, while studying at Cornell University, and the two were soon collaborating. Fuller was pursuing out-there ideas in design and architecture, and it often fell to Mr. Sadao to do the practical work of implementing them.
One particularly high-profile Fuller design was the United States pavilion at Expo 67, the international exposition held in Montreal in 1967. It was a striking 20-story geodesic dome, one of his signature shapes — “a knockout,” The Boston Globe called it at the time.
“Fuller was the face of the project,” Alec Nevala-Lee, who is writing a biography of Fuller, said by email, “but the majority of the design and logistical side was handled by Sadao and Peter Floyd of the Cambridge architectural firm Geometrics Inc.
“Sadao was careful to downplay his role,” he continued, “but there isn’t much doubt that he was primarily responsible for what he called ‘the physical work’ on the dome, including the underlying mathematics and details of construction.”
Mr. Sadao filled a similar role with Noguchi, the acclaimed sculptor and landscape architect. He helped turn Noguchi’s concepts, whether for the Hart Plaza fountain in Detroit or the 400-acre Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan, into reality.
“Shoji’s architectural background was instrumental to these large projects,” Thomas T.K. Zung, who became a partner of Mr. Sadao’s in the firm Buckminster Fuller, Sadao & Zung Architects, said by email.
“Shoji’s accomplishment was his service to two geniuses, Bucky and Isamu,” Mr. Zung added. “Shoji was an architectural samurai — he understood them both and added to their mix, without need or benefit of self-glory.”
Mr. Sadao, whose parents emigrated from Japan, came to fill that role via an unusual route that included both time in an internment camp during World War II and service in the Army.
Shoji Sadao (pronounced SHO-jee seh-DOW-oh) was born in Los Angeles; his family said that he and his high school transcript gave his birth date as Dec. 20, 1926, but that his parents, Riichi and Otatsu (Kodama) Sadao, registered the date on his birth certificate as Jan. 2, 1927.
His father was a farmer, his mother a homemaker, and they spoke only rudimentary English, using Japanese as their main language. Young Shoji grew up an English speaker, learning the language from friends and at school. That made for a reticent sort of household.
“Communication was very basic,” Mr. Sadao recalled in an oral history recorded by his family in 2015.
After World War II began, he and most of his family were sent to the Gila River internment camp in Arizona along with thousands of other Japanese-Americans. He finished high school there.
The camp staff included Quakers who were conscientious objectors, he said, and for a work-study program he was paired with a Quaker architect who was in charge of buildings and grounds. That got him interested in architecture.
Young people could leave the camps if they were accepted to a college, and Mr. Sadao got into Boston University. He had just begun freshman year there in 1945 when he was drafted into the Army. He was at basic training at Camp Croft in South Carolina when V-J Day came in August 1945, marking the end of the war.
He served for four years, stationed in Germany in a topographic unit, experience that would come in handy when he met Fuller.
Mr. Sadao had enrolled at Cornell University’s School of Architecture on the G.I. Bill, and Fuller turned up there in 1952 as a visiting professor. Fuller set the students to constructing a 20-foot-diameter “miniature earth” project, a sphere with the continental land masses marked on its surface. Mr. Sadao’s experience in the topographic corps made him a key figure in the project.
“I had some knowledge of cartography,” he said at a 2003 symposium in Tivoli, N.Y., “so I became one of the leaders of the various project groups” — the one responsible for rendering the earth’s features on the giant sphere in copper wire.
That began their partnership. Mr. Sadao also assisted Fuller in creating versions of his Dymaxion Map, a flat representation of the globe that Fuller hoped would help people see the features and peoples of Earth as connected rather than disparate.
Mr. Sadao graduated in 1954 with a degree in architecture and joined Fuller’s office in Raleigh, N.C. Among the projects he worked on there was the design of lightweight shelters for military equipment and personnel that could be airlifted to areas where they were needed. In the 2003 talk, he also recalled a United States government assignment to design, on one month’s notice, a dome for a trade show in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“It had to fit into one cargo aircraft, be able to be flown to the site and put up in three of four days by untrained personnel,” he said. “We were able to put up this 114-foot geodesic dome, and it was the hit of the show there.”
The building was subsequently used at other trade shows. “Many years later, Bucky said that this is the first building in history that’s flown around the world,” Mr. Sadao said.
Mr. Sadao was also a quiet force behind “Three Structures by Buckminster Fuller,” a 1959-60 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“One of the structures was a tensegrity mast,” Mr. Nevala-Lee said, “which consisted of a tower of wires and struts that seemed to magically stand without any of the solid members touching one another.”
“Fuller had built basic demonstrations of the concept before,” he added, “but he asked Sadao and the lighting designer Edison Price to put together a more sophisticated version. Sadao and Price did all the calculations and assembly on their own — they even figured out that they could ‘tune’ the structure by tightening all the members until they resonated at the same pitch — and walked it over to the museum from Price’s studio.”
In 1965, in preparation for working on Expo 67, the two formalized their partnership with the creation of Fuller & Sadao Architects. According to an obituary of Mr. Sadao posted on the website of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, one important thing Mr. Sadao brought to that partnership was that he was a licensed architect. Fuller was not.
Throughout this period, Mr. Sadao was also working with Noguchi, Fuller’s longtime friend; Fuller had introduced the two in 1956. As the website of the Noguchi Museum in Queens (which Mr. Sadao helped design) puts it, Noguchi was interested in “an expanded definition of sculpture more directly related to the lived experience.”
That led him to design large outdoor sculptures and entire parks, with Mr. Sadao often helping to make them a reality. The first Noguchi project he worked on, in the late 1950s, was the Billy Rose sculpture garden at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and many others followed. After Noguchi’s death in 1988, Mr. Sadao stepped in to finish, among other things, Bayfront Park in Miami.
He also became executive director of the Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum at that time. He served in that capacity until 2003.
Mr. Sadao, who had lived in Tokyo in recent years, is survived by his wife, Tsuneko Sawada Sadao, whom he married in 1972; a sister, Masako Asawa; and a brother, Frank.
In the 2003 talk, Mr. Sadao said that he and Fuller thought the success of the 1967 Montreal pavilion might spur demand for domed structures. Instead, he said, most of the interest came from “the hippie world, I guess you’d call it.”
One potential client inquired about having a 60-foot-diameter dome built for his commune outside Boston, specifically requesting that the entrances along the base be left open.
“I said: ‘Why? It’s going to be cold. How are you going to control things?’” Mr. Sadao recalled. “He said, ‘Well, during meditation in our group, some of our group levitate, so we have to be able to float out without any obstructions.’”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
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