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From One AAPI Designer to Another: Discovering Hideo Sasaki, AAPI Leader

I started at Sasaki back in June of 2018, a freshly minted grad with zero expectations and a whole lot to learn. 

Like many, I first assumed that Sasaki was a Japanese company, maybe one that happened to have a Boston office. But on my first day during orientation, our librarian/company archivist informed me that the company was founded in 1957 by a man named Hideo Sasaki, who was in fact Japanese American and had even been interned during WWII. This was surprising to me, as it’s pretty rare as an Asian American to work for a company also founded by (and named after) another Asian American. Especially by chance. I like to believe that there were some cosmic forces that led me here—and that through my own identity, Hideo and I share a special connection, despite having never met. I live in Watertown, Massachusetts and walk along the Charles River every day, following the footsteps this person took to establish his design practice here.   

I am a proud mixed Chinese and Vietnamese American, born to immigrant parents who fled authoritarian regimes to seek a better life in the U.S. Like Hideo, my family ended up in the more rural backwoods of America: he grew up as a farmhand in the California countryside, and I grew up among the cornfields of the Midwest. Also like Hideo’s, my parents fought through adversity and oppression to make the “American Dream” a reality for their children. According to those he worked with, Hideo never spoke of his youth, the loss of his family farm, or the Oklahoma internment camp where he and his family were forced to relocate during World War II. This is why it’s important to me to reflect during this time of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. What are the unspoken and unheard stories of our past? Of our families, and of those who came before us? This month has become a time for me personally to consider the legacy of AAPI leaders, especially within the built environment. And further, a time for me to think of the legacy I want to leave for future generations of AAPI professionals.  

As I was researching Hideo’s background, I read a lot about his accomplishments in the field: pioneering a unique interdisciplinary design philosophy, leading as chairman of Harvard’s landscape architecture department, and creating some of the great landmarks of landscape architecture. Some of his legacies include the Christian Science Center Plaza (Boston), Greenacre Park (NYC), IBM T.J. Watson Research Center (Yorktown, NY), John Deere Headquarters (Moline, IL), and Foothill College (Los Altos, CA). 

But almost nowhere could I find anything relating to Hideo’s cultural heritage or to his contributions as a person of color (POC) or AAPI leader. Perhaps this was strategic and intentional: in the context of the times, it might have been most advantageous to let his work speak for itself and keep his head down on anything that could otherwise draw negative attention. Perhaps it was personal: Hideo was known to keep his professional life very neatly separated from his family/private life. Finally, perhaps it was also historical: the collective pan-Asian American identity had only recently begun to form in response to the Black Power movement, agricultural strikes, and the Vietnam War, among other key milestones. Even the term “Asian American” was coined only in 1968, by student activists in California advocating for ethnic studies curricula, in order to unite many disparate Asian ethnic groups under a singular political coalition. This was 11 years into Sasaki’s practice, so conversations around AAPI equality were still emerging and happening only on the fringes of society. 

Even if he never spoke on it explicitly, I’d like to believe that this is part of what made Sasaki such a strong advocate for multidisciplinary collaboration in planning and design—because he knew too well the importance of amplifying marginalized voices.

Regardless of why we know so little about his AAPI background, I have no doubt that Hideo’s cultural and personal identity influenced his work and approach to design. To be one of, if not the only person of color and command a room of white men in a time and space that wasn’t built for people like you. Where there were no role models who looked like you in the industry. Where society was still debating basic civil rights for BIPOC communities and immigration quotas for Asians and other ethnic groups (and to be sure, these battles are ongoing). I imagine it must have taken great courage and strength. 

As a designer and leader, Sasaki practiced a unique management style and cultivated a collective of diverse perspectives as an alternative to a single author’s vision. Hideo, or Hid as he was often called, was seen and described by many as modest, humble, and soft-spoken, yet also as a fierce leader with high standards. One colleague even said “Hid led quietly but with an invisible stick!” But rather than take the role of a domineering master designer, he took the role of a collaborator—a partner in the reimagining of space. In the words of one of his close collaborators, he had “little patience for unilateral thinking,” instead always striving to blend expertise across disciplines. This created a new paradigm for the profession. It paved the way for our current practice of >300 multidisciplinary design professionals, with project work spanning scales, geographies, and typologies. 

As POC, we know what it’s like to fight for our voices to be heard. Even if he never spoke on it explicitly, I’d like to believe that this is part of what made Sasaki such a strong advocate for multidisciplinary collaboration in planning and design—because he knew too well the importance of amplifying marginalized voices. That better design happens together, when diverse perspectives are not only present at the table, but heard, respected, and celebrated. 

For me, celebrating AAPI Heritage Month means recognizing the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in all corners of our lives. In Sasaki’s own words, “Contribution is the only value.” And as fate would have it, his contribution and mine are conjoined every day when I log in for work. Happy AAPI Heritage Month!

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