Newsletter Subscription
Print Subscription
Change Address
Obit> Yoshiko Sato, 1960-2012
Toshiko Mori remembers Sato's courage and grace.
Yoshiko Sato.
Dustin Aksland

The architecture community is woven with an intricate warp of educational relationships and weft of creative inspirations. When someone like Yoshiko Sato disappears suddenly from our reach, we become off-balance, creating a large hole in a supportive and interdependent life. I share an interwoven history in New York and in Cambridge with her. In her architecture, she had a unique focus on immaterial and ethereal matters, atmosphere, conditions of light and shadow, focusing on absence as well as presence, less on material than on the effect of materiality. She had a striking and radiant presence. She was ageless and calm and full of life and joy; she had a strong voice, stellar, and bright.

I have known Yoshiko since she was a student at Parsons in the early 1980s when she came to the United States from her native Japan. I, along with other instructors, encouraged her to transfer to Cooper Union to pursue studies in architecture, where I taught. There, I saw her ideas merge with the poetic pedagogy of John Hejduk. Professor Richard Henderson and I, while teaching third-year studio, sometimes left Yoshiko alone to allow the time and space needed for her to achieve her visions independently. I still remember vividly her undergraduate thesis on the moon, for which she presented amazing drawings of its waxing and waning.

Manhattan pied-a-terre, 2004 (left) and YN-13 House, Shelter Island, New York, 2010 (right).
Michael Moran  and Courtesy Morris Sato Studio

We both arrived at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) around the same time.  Her master’s thesis at Harvard, advised by Rafael Moneo, was on the reconstruction of Kobe after it was struck by the 1995 earthquake. She proposed a series of public spaces to be used as buffers and also as places of refuge in the areas prone to natural disaster. Recently, many of us were reflecting on her prescient thesis after the earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region last year. With her consistent and excellent portfolio, she received the Faculty Design Award when she graduated in 1996.

When I was the chair of the Department of Architecture at the GSD, I invited her to come and teach. She continued at Columbia, where she immensely influenced the current generation of young architects who will carry on her vision.

In my New York office, where she once worked, we have two of her former TAs, as well as three architects who were her students. She was one of the most dedicated and committed teachers of her generation. She lived her every day with the utmost vigor, love, productivity, and generosity for her students until the very last moments.

She cultivated a very personal and original architecture with her partner and husband, Michael Morris, whom she had known since her days at Parsons. They are very different—Michael, a tall and garrulous Irishman, as opposed to the diminutive and quiet Yoshiko. But both of them carried an unmistakable sensibility and aesthetic. In 1998, they designed a Shiro Kuramata retrospective at the Grey Art Gallery, which, infused with the aura of Kuramata’s work, was full of shadows and nuances. For Yoshiko, it was all about the quality, the smooth surface, and the continuity between the earthbound and the larger universe. She had an otherworldly aura herself. She was always focused on working in the space, in the realm of the void and the air that achieves its solidity through visual and atmospheric transformations.

Yoshiko died on the afternoon of February 5 after more than a decade-long private battle with cancer. She practiced a rigorous holistic lifestyle, keeping her illness at bay. Her work and her personality were one in which distillation, purity, and clarity of vision made ethereal projects believable. We will miss her immensely now that she is with the moons and the stars. Gassho—palms to the heart.

Toshiko Mori

Toshiko Mori, principal of Toshiko Mori Architect, is the Robert P. Hubbard Professor in the Practice of Architecture at Harvard Graduate School of Design.