Arch + Eng, Art, Design, Social Impact

Shoji Sadao, Quiet Visionary

We are saddened to announce that Shoji Sadao passed away on November 3rd in Japan at the age of 92. We send
our kind condolences to Shoji’s wife Tsuneko Sadao of Tokyo, his family and his many friends and colleagues around
the world.

Buckminster Fuller thought of Shoji as a true “Planetary Citizen.” Their work together spanned decades as they circled the planet to realize some of Fuller’s most iconic architectural contributions. In a letter written to Shoji in 1965, Fuller described how and why he cherished their friendship and wanted to formalize their collaboration.

“You are the first human being I can enthusiastically contemplate taking into design science partnership in the pursuit of my life objectives… you bring fourteen years of intense and intimate experience in the fundamental conceptioning, mathematics, technology, economics and psychology in the development of which I have been uniquely preoccupied.”

Shoji is best known for his decades of work with Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi, both creative geniuses of the 20th century – one a “design scientist” and the other an artist. He would minimize how central his own role was in creating visionary works with both of them from the early 1950s to the 1980s. When he was well into his 70s, Shoji finally had time to reflect on his life and tell his own story. Even then, it was instead to tell the story of his two mentors and colleagues and the extraordinary half-century friendship between them.

Shoji curated the exhibition Buckminster Fuller, Isamu Noguchi, Best of Friends in 2006 and published a much richer book of the same name in 2011. From the introduction to Best of Friends Shoji captured how unified these two very different evolutionary designers were: “Together, they combine aspects of the world of science and of art, uniting the two worlds into a single vision of great truth and beauty.” Working with renowned graphic designer Tomoko Miho, this book is an artwork unto itself.

As one of Buckminster Fuller’s most important collaborators, Shoji helped initiate many of his mathematical breakthroughs. Along with Duncan Stuart, Don Richter, and Jeffrey Lindsay, he played a key role in the nascent years developing Bucky’s earliest geodesics. He met Fuller as an architecture student at Cornell University in 1952. Shoji brought his topographic and architectural skills from his military years to one of Fuller’s earliest experiments in geodesics, the “Cornell Miniature Earth”. This 20-foot diameter wooden sphere with copper mesh continents on its curved surface was set atop the roof of Rand Hall at Cornell University.

Shoji’s cartographic and mathematical expertise made possible the first icosahedral Dymaxion Map in an unpublished UN version he designed for Fuller in 1952. The Raleigh Edition of the icosahedral map was finally published in 1954, the same year that Fuller’s geodesics patent was granted. Along with James Fitzgibbon, Shoji became one of the first of the team to comprise Geodesics Inc. in Raleigh, North Carolina working on paperboard domes and lightweight air-deliverable marine dome prototypes for the Military.

In the mid-1960s they formalized their company, Fuller & Sadao Architects, launching large-scale projects together. Of the two, Bucky himself was not a licensed architect – Shoji was. Marking a high point of these years, Shoji took on the most challenging task as lead architect to design and build Fuller’s most iconic building: the American Pavilion, the Montreal Expo ’67 Dome. Later Shoji helped Fuller flesh out futuristic ideas such as the Triton Floating City Project.

In the 1970s, they merged with architect and friend, Thomas T.K. Zung creating Fuller, Sadao and Zung, Architects. Having been one of the key students in the 1950s to apply spherical trigonometry to create architectural approaches that led to Fuller’s geodesics and other patents, Shoji advanced the greater understanding of synergetic geometry with many other associates of Bucky, including Zung, Joseph Clinton, E.J. Applewhite and many others through the Synergetics Collaborative (SNEC) in the early 2000s. In his later years, he donated his own architectural collection to Stanford University to be joined with the Fuller Archives.

As another world traveler, Noguchi would soon bring Shoji into more projects than Bucky. They built well-known landscape artworks, sculptures and playgrounds and designed Akari light sculptures. By 1980, Shoji designed and led the construction of the Noguchi Museum in New York. A year after Noguchi died, Shoji became Executive Director of the Noguchi Foundation Museum and Garden from 1989 to 2003. While there, he worked closely with Associate Director Alexandra Snyder (May), Bucky and Anne’s granddaughter, who initiated the museum’s education program. Shoji remained a Trustee of the Noguchi Foundation as the museum evolved into a thriving national and community-based Institution.

Fuller and Noguchi were inspired by each other’s work, yet they never designed a single piece together. Instead, they collaborated separately, often with Shoji, on some of their own most prominent works, including Bucky’s Expo ’67 Dome and Noguchi’s Challenger 7 Memorial, a 100-foot tall Tetrahelix in Miami. They would never have been as prolific in their extensive oeuvres without Shoji’s support and influence. With a graceful humility, characteristic of his Japanese ancestry, Shoji quietly applied his unique talent and skills with a precision that brought many of their works to life with the universal qualities they are known for.

During his life, Shoji was modest and reserved, keeping his name out of the limelight. Yet we will always remember and celebrate how vital Shoji’s work was to both Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi and how essential he was to both as a creative visionary and devoted friend.

To read more about Shoji Sadao, read this NY Times obituary, Shoji Sadao, Quiet Hand Behind Two Visionaries, Dies at 92