Portrait of Shoji Sadao seated looking directly at the camera

Shoji Sadao

I am self-effacing, as you might say, and preferred to stay in the background.1

 

Shoji Sadao (1927–2019) was one of Isamu Noguchi’s most valued collaborators and confidants from the mid-1950s until Noguchi’s death in 1988. An indefatigable facilitator for both Noguchi and R. Buckminster Fuller, he designed, engineered, and oversaw the nuts-and-bolts details that made Fuller and Noguchi’s grand visions possible.

In the book he wrote about his work with these two titans of twentieth-century design—Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi: Best of Friends (2011) an expanded take on his 2006 exhibition of the same name—the always modest Sadao somewhat unfairly cast himself as a supporting player. The only details he revealed about his own background are those similar to Noguchi’s: born in California, and confined to a Japanese American incarceration camp in Arizona during World War II. Noguchi voluntarily went to Poston; Sadao’s family was sent to Gila River, where he graduated from high school.

Sadao’s interest in architecture emerged through vocational training with Gila River’s camp architect, a Quaker conscientious objector. But he would not be able to pursue his calling for some time. Soon after he was allowed to leave the camp to attend Boston University, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he would serve in a topographic unit in Germany.

Through the G.I. Bill, Sadao enrolled in Cornell University in 1952 as an architecture student and attended lectures by Fuller, who was then a visiting scholar. Like Noguchi more than thirty years earlier, Sadao entered Fuller’s orbit as an adept—that rare mind capable of absorbing his teacher’s long, extemporaneous monologues full of proclamations and prophecies about the future of architecture, ecology, and his concept of energetic-synergetic geometry.

Putting to use the cartographic skills that he had acquired while stationed in Germany, Sadao assisted Fuller with his Geoscope, an attempt to correct the distortion of landmasses on most maps and globes. Sadao transposed data from a spherical globe onto twenty planar equilateral triangles, which became the layout for Fuller’s presentation to the United Nations later that year, dubbed the U.N. Dymaxion Airocean World Map.

Geosphere

Shoji Sadao, “My Design Work with R. Buckminster Fuller.” Presented on January 25, 2003 at the first Synergetics Collaborative public Symposium at Design Science Toys in Tivoli, NY.

Fuller and Noguchi forged a friendship in part through frequent road trips they took together in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Nearly two decades later, in the summer of 1953, Sadao hit the road with Fuller and his wife, Anne, to help construct a geodesic dome in Aspen, Colorado. Sadao would go to work for Fuller’s firm in Raleigh, North Carolina, after he graduated from Cornell the following year.

On a serendipitous weekend in September 1956, Sadao accompanied Fuller to the National Air Show in Philadelphia to watch the U.S. Navy airlift one of Fuller’s geodesic domes, which Fuller was trying to sell to the military as a portable battlefield shelter. There, Fuller introduced Sadao to Noguchi and Noguchi’s then-wife, Yoshiko Yamaguchi. Noguchi had been traveling regularly between New York, Europe, and Japan, and Noguchi suggested that he might have a project for Sadao in the future. Sadao won a Fulbright Award to study Japanese architecture at Waseda University in Tokyo the following year, and joined Noguchi and master gardener Mirei Shigemori on trips to Tokushima, Shodoshima, and Okayama as they sourced stones for Noguchi’s garden at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Sadao also traveled to study Zen gardens in Kyoto, where Noguchi arranged for him to stay with priest friends at Daisen-in Temple.2

Upon returning to New York in 1958, Sadao found work with a friend of Fuller and Noguchi: the engineering prodigy, lighting designer, and technician Edison Price. It was at Price’s Midtown Manhattan workshop in the evening hours that Sadao assisted Noguchi on a series of cut, scored, and folded aluminum sculptures for a 1959 exhibition at Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery in Manhattan. Sadao’s first major architectural project for Noguchi was the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden at The Israel Museum in Jerusalem (1960–65).

In Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi: Best of Friends, Sadao wrote about pulling double during this stretch of his career, and how engrossed he became in the intellectual challenges posed by his work with Noguchi:

“This was a rewarding period for me, learning by day at Edison’s about lighting, the manufacturing process, and materials, while my evenings and weekends were with Isamu observing and absorbing what I could about space, form, and composition. Translating a three-dimensional site model into a two-dimensional drawing was not an easy task. No matter how accurately I measured, Isamu would always find a relationship between elements in the design that was not correct. It was not the literal accuracy from the model but the overall composition that had to be conveyed in the drawings.”3

“This was a rewarding period for me, learning by day at Edison’s about lighting, the manufacturing process, and materials, while my evenings and weekends were with Isamu observing and absorbing what I could about space, form, and composition. Translating a three-dimensional site model into a two-dimensional drawing was not an easy task. No matter how accurately I measured, Isamu would always find a relationship between elements in the design that was not correct. It was not the literal accuracy from the model but the overall composition that had to be conveyed in the drawings.”3

By 1964, Sadao had moved to Carbondale, Illinois, where Fuller taught at Southern Illinois University, to work with Fuller in his office there. Shortly thereafter, they formed Fuller and Sadao, Inc. The following year, Sadao opened an affiliated office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to work with an established corps of Fuller-affiliated engineers called Geometrics, Inc. Geometrics’s first major project was a geodesic dome, 200 feet tall and 250 feet in diameter, for Expo 67 in Montreal, for which Sadao received co-credit as designer. In that same year, they installed another dome, the Spoletosphere, at the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.

The festival was organized by Priscilla Morgan, Noguchi’s steadfast publicist and impresario, and Noguchi was asked to contribute something as well. With Sadao’s assistance he fabricated a concrete, modular play sculpture, Octetra, in the plaza in front of Spoleto Cathedral.

A photograph of Sadao with Fuller and Noguchi overseeing the work on Octetra perfectly captures their camaraderie and byplay, with the genial Sadao characteristically making it happen while Fuller and Noguchi enjoy the moment.

  • R. Buckminster Fuller (left), Shoji Sadao (center), and Isamu Noguchi (right) installing Noguchi’s Octetra in Spoleto, Italy, 1968. ©INFGM / ARS

Working with Morgan, Sadao became the de facto manager of Noguchi’s many far-flung projects, starting with the artist’s Akari light sculpture enterprise, Akari Associates. In 1971, Sadao and Noguchi established Noguchi Fountain and Plaza, Inc., where he filled the role of Noguchi’s in-house architect and engineer, although his official title was treasurer.

Sadao managed most of Noguchi’s major public commissions over the next two decades: Philip A. Hart Plaza and Horace Dodge Fountain in Detroit (1972–79), California Scenario in Costa Mesa, California (1980–82), and Bayfront Park in Miami (1980–96). During this prolific period, he also continued to manage the Fuller and Sadao office in Cambridge, which in 1975 added another partner, Thomas Zung, to become R. Buckminster Fuller Sadao & Zung Architects.

When Noguchi decided to convert the factory building and garden in Long Island City, New York, that he had been using as a studio into a museum, he asked Sadao to help design the entry pavilion, which features indoor-outdoor galleries on the ground level and floating galleries above. It is the Museum’s signature space, and among the most important and compelling of Noguchi’s career.

After Noguchi died in 1988, Sadao became executive director of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation. For more than fifteen years, he guided its transition from a living artist’s foundation to a professional not-for-profit organization capable of sustaining Noguchi’s vision. He often acted as Noguchi’s surrogate, collaborating on numerous posthumous exhibition and publication projects that secured the artist’s legacy. In the same spirit, Sadao also oversaw the planning and execution of Noguchi’s last unfulfilled project: the massive Moerenuma Park in Sapporo, Japan, a 454-acre collage of Noguchi’s unexecuted ideas for playgrounds and land art.

Crucially, Sadao became the principal defender of Noguchi’s work during this period. In 1997, the owners of 666 Fifth Avenue in New York City decided to remove the Noguchi-designed ceilings and waterfall from the entry lobby. They felt it was too difficult to maintain, and too expensive to light. Sadao wrote to the project architect to offer detailed solutions for modernizing the lighting without compromising the work, and warned that local preservation and conservation communities would rise up in protest were they to proceed.

After Moerenuma Park opened in 2005, Sadao became a board member of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation of Japan, located on the site of Noguchi’s studio and residence in the Kagawa Prefecture. He also became an honorary life trustee of The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York, where he debuted his exhibition, Best of Friends: Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi, in 2006.

Sadao continued to act as a champion for the legacies of both Fuller and Noguchi in the years to come. He and his wife, Tsuneko, endowed the The Isamu Noguchi Catalogue Raisonné, the research engine that drives the Museum’s program. Sadao also placed his own archive with Stanford University to complement the R. Buckminster Fuller Collection, which was already there.

It would be impossible to explain the advent and growth of aviation in the twentieth century without delving into the material science and engineering that made it possible. That was Sadao’s importance to Fuller and Noguchi. He put his own awesome gifts in the service of the complementary missions of these two men because he believed that was the best way to meaningfully and significantly improve life on Spaceship Earth, to use the term that Fuller popularized. That both of these extraordinary (and extraordinarily difficult) visionaries chose Sadao and relied on him for decades to conceive, design, test, and implement air-worthy solutions for their dreams says it all.

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Noguchi, Sadao, Izumi, and staff of The Metropolitan Museum of Art install Water Stone (1986). ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Text by Matthew Kirsch, Curator of Research and Digital Content at The Noguchi Museum. 

Produced by Alex Miller.

Transcripts of archival materials are available by request to accessibility@noguchi.org.

 

1 Sandra Pfeifer, “Fuller and Noguchi: Story of a Friendship,”Domus, September 1, 2001.

2 Shoji Sadao, letter to Isamu Noguchi, August 23, 1957. The Noguchi Museum Archives, MS_COR_323_001.

3 Shoji Sadao, Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi: Best of Friends (New York and Milan: The Noguchi Museum and 5 Continents Editions), 2011, 174.