Shoji Sadao translator of ideas of Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi, Dies at 92

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Shoji Sadao

Shoji Sadao, Shoji Sadao (January 1927 – November 3, 2019) was a Japanese American architect, best known for his work and collaborations with R. Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi. Whose parents had immigrated from Japan, came to fill that role by 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. Shoji grew up an English speaker, learning the language from friends and at school. That made for a reticent sort of household.

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 attend college, and Mr. Sadao got into Boston University. He had just begun freshman year 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, an experience that would come in handy when he met Fuller.

He 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. 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.

He 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.

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.

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 on the website of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, one important thing Mr. Sadao brought to the 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. 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, serving in that capacity until 2003.

Mr. Sadao, who 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.

R. Buckminster Fuller

R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was a renowned 20th century inventor and visionary born in Milton, Massachusetts. Dedicating his life to making the world work for all of humanity, Fuller operated as a practical philosopher who demonstrated his ideas as inventions that he called “artifacts.” Fuller did not limit himself to one field but worked as a 'comprehensive anticipatory design scientist' to solve global problems surrounding housing, shelter, transportation, education, energy, ecological destruction, and poverty. Throughout the course of his life Fuller held 28 patents, authored 28 books, received 47 honorary degrees. And while his most well-known artifact, the geodesic dome, has been produced over 300,000 times worldwide, Fuller's true impact on the world today can be found in his continued influence upon generations of designers, architects, scientists and artists working to create a more sustainable planet.

Isamu NOGUCHI

Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) was one of the twentieth century’s most important and critically acclaimed sculptors. Through a lifetime of artistic experimentation, he created sculptures, gardens, furniture and lighting designs, ceramics, architecture, and set designs. His work, at once subtle and bold, traditional and modern, set a new standard for the reintegration of the arts.

Noguchi, an internationalist, traveled extensively throughout his life. (In his later years he maintained studios both in Japan and New York.) He discovered the impact of large-scale public works in Mexico, earthy ceramics and tranquil gardens in Japan, subtle ink-brush techniques in China, and the purity of marble in Italy. He incorporated all of these impressions into his work, which utilized a wide range of materials, including stainless steel, marble, cast iron, balsa wood, bronze, sheet aluminum, basalt, granite, and water.  

Born in Los Angeles, California, to an American mother and a Japanese father, Noguchi lived in Japan until the age of thirteen, when he moved to Indiana. While studying pre-medicine at Columbia University, he took evening sculpture classes on New York’s Lower East Side, mentoring with the sculptor Onorio Ruotolo. He soon left the University to become an academic sculptor.

In 1926, Noguchi saw an exhibition in New York of the work of Constantin Brancusi that profoundly changed his artistic direction. With a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Noguchi went to Paris, and from 1927 to 1929 worked in Brancusi’s studio. Inspired by the older artist’s reductive forms, Noguchi turned to modernism and a kind of abstraction, infusing his highly finished pieces with a lyrical and emotional expressiveness, and with an aura of mystery.

Noguchi’s work was not widely recognized in the United States until 1938, when he completed a large-scale sculpture symbolizing the freedom of the press, which was commissioned for the Associated Press building in Rockefeller Center, New York City. This was the first of what would become numerous celebrated public works worldwide, ranging from playgrounds to plazas, gardens to fountains, all reflecting his belief in the social significance of sculpture.

In 1942, Noguchi set up a studio at 33 MacDougal Alley, in Greenwich Village, having spent much of the 1930s based in New York City but traveling extensively in Asia, Mexico, and Europe.   

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the backlash against Japanese-Americans in the United States had a dramatic personal effect on Noguchi, motivating him to become a political activist. In 1942, he started Nisei Writers and Artists Mobilization for Democracy, a group dedicated to raising awareness of the patriotism of Japanese-Americans. He also asked to be placed in an internment camp in Arizona, where he lived for a brief seven months. Following the War, Noguchi spent a great deal of time in Japan exploring the wrenching issues raised during the previous years. His ideas and feelings are reflected in his works of that period, particularly the delicate slab sculptures included in the 1946 exhibition “Fourteen Americans,” at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Noguchi did not belong to any particular movement, but collaborated with artists working in a range of disciplines and schools. He created stage sets as early as 1935 for the dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, beginning a lifelong collaboration; as well as for dancers/choreographers Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, and George Balanchine and composer John Cage. In the 1960s, Noguchi began working with stone carver Masatoshi Izumi on the island of Shikoku, Japan; a collaboration that would also continue for the rest of his life. From 1960 to 1966, he worked on a playground design with the architect Louis Kahn

Whenever given the opportunity to venture into the mass-production of his interior designs, Noguchi seized it. In 1937, he designed a Bakelite intercom for the Zenith Radio Corporation, and in 1947, his glass-topped table was produced by Herman Miller. This design—along with others such as his designs for Akari Light Sculptures which were initially developed in 1951 using traditional Japanese materials—are still being produced today.

In 1985, Noguchi opened The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (now known as The Noguchi Museum), in Long Island City, New York. The Museum, established and designed by the artist, marked the culmination of his commitment to public spaces.  Located in a 1920s industrial building across the street from where the artist had established a studio in 1960, it has a serene outdoor sculpture garden, and many galleries that display Noguchi’s work, along with photographs and models from his career.

Noguchi’s first retrospective in the United States was in 1968, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. In 1986, he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale. Noguchi received the Edward MacDowell Medal for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to the Arts in 1982; the Kyoto Prize in Arts in 1986; the National Medal of Arts in 1987; and the Order of Sacred Treasure from the Japanese government in 1988. He died in New York City in 1988.

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