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Architect Eric Fisher creates an indigenous architecture


Today's problem — how to fit an alien element into a finished piece of design — is giving Eric Fisher fits.

To begin with, the Shadyside architect had designed the perfect house — well, nearly perfect. North of the city, the house's long, low lines slink along the rolling landscape. Typically Fisher, the house employs familiar materials: steel and stone and plenty of glass. The structure's industrial look bows to Pittsburgh's past, while the open spaces embrace the natural setting.


Or not quite.

Recently, the client fell in love with a wood-fired pizza oven he just had to have, an igloo with a big belly and stove pipe top. Nicely, but firmly, he told Fisher to incorporate it into his design.

Well, sure, Fisher gulped. I'm easy.

But making it fit hasn't been. That's what is eating Eric Fisher this morning.

Principal of FISHER ARCHitecture, he's a returned expatriate who left his native city for Harvard, Los Angeles and Berlin. Back in the new century, in a South Aiken Avenue home/office he designed and built himself. "I'm really excited about where I'm going," he says.

Dressed for work in torn blue jeans and hole-mottled argyle socks, Fisher stares into his oversized computer screen, a steaming mug of French roast by his side. Manipulating lines — red and green, blue and yellow — he tries to render an alien element entirely contextual.

"The difference between me and a big firm," he says, "is the amount of time that I'm able to spend on a project."

Thanks to a completely paperless operation that has neither overhead nor staff, "I'm very cost-effective," he says. "I'm not a genius or anything. But I spend most of my time drawing. And the more time I spend on a project, the better the results."

There are many single-proprietor architects, certainly. What makes Fisher part of the vanguard is his use of emerging technology. Two- and three-dimensional color visuals — compiled with software unavailable even a decade ago — mean the design process is now streamlined, easy to visualize, and simple to translate into actual buildings.

Such a hands-on approach, along with his unerring vision of the Western Pennsylvania landscape, helps Fisher redefine local architecture. Increasingly, clients do not want faux-English houses. Instead, they commission more individual, more indigenous design.

"I'm trying to create a regional style reflecting people who live and work here," Fisher says. "Boxy, angular, traditional modern-style buildings: They're appropriate because they reflect things actually built."

His houses' big openings — enormous glass walls are a trademark — mean more light, all the better during long, gray Pittsburgh winters. "My work reflects the qualities and material of our city," Fisher says. "Everything reflects its surroundings — but in unexpected ways."

The familiar and the foreign, the safe and the surprising ... that's what Fisher combined in his Emerald Art Glass House, a cantilevered metal-and-glass box jutting above a South Side glass works.

The home's industrial forms and Cor-10 steel siding, which brought Fisher national attention, relate to the factory below, while a plant-covered roof reflects the nearby South Side Slopes above. In addition, Fisher used glass products throughout. A unique glass rain-screen clads concrete block; inside, a glass stairway snakes throughout the structure. 

It's heady stuff, Fisher agrees, "but you have to take risks."

Then there's Blue Steel, near Butler, a home whose glass sides not only reflect the surrounding woods but cause the house to seemingly disappear into the sky.

Inside is another Fisher trademark: flexible, open spaces that can be used differently as needs arise. They parallel his own home, where his large dining room easily transforms into conference room, workshop, display center, and entertainment zone. "It's easy to build," he says, "and can create an extraordinary experience."

The idea of ease brings Fisher back to his wood-fired pizza oven. "I don't want to cut into this glass wall," he mutters, "but it really fits there."

Or maybe not. Here a little cut. There a little slice. "I have to interrupt one course of concrete block six inches, and come back four inches."

Click. Snip. Whirl.

"This gets gone. This gets trimmed. This comes back. Right here."

Lines dance before him, Fisher the sorcerer choreographing the rainbow tentacles.

Finally, the oven looks integral, contextual — as if it'd been there from the beginning.

That's the 2-D version. Now Fisher imports it into 3-D to see how the oven, and the house, nestle into the hillside.

"I want to make sure," he says, "it doesn't look like poop."

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