For this month’s edition of Wayback Wednesday, we’re re-running our January/February 2014 profile of architect Frederick Fisher, who receieved the 2013 AIA|LA Gold Medal. Here, we learn about his journey to architecture, the importance of Los Angeles’s storied design legacy in his career and the ways art and artists have informed his work over the years.
By Lisa Bingham Dewart
When Scott Johnson called Frederick Fisher, the founder and principal of Frederick Fisher and Partners, and said he was nominating him for the 2013 AIA|LA Gold Medal, the architect was completely surprised. “I joked to my wife I had a Sally Field moment,” he recalls. “I was completely taken aback.” But those familiar with his work felt the accolade was well deserved, given his architectural accomplishments. They range from residences to academic buildings and public spaces, all conceived in a practice rooted in a broad cultural approach blending ideas from architecture and art.
As the son of an architect, Fisher saw the world “through an architect’s eyes,” he says, and developed “an appreciation of and an understanding of architecture as a made object.” Rather than functioning as an abstract exercise, Fisher learned architecture means “real people have to put real materials in the real environment.” Still, he wasn’t entirely convinced he’d become one himself.
While studying art history at Oberlin College in Ohio, he read Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture and had something of an ah-ha moment: “I was interested in art, art history and architecture but never understood how to put them together. Venturi gave me a path.”
A second revelation came a few years later when, as a graduate student at UCLA, he heard Frank Gehry speak. “I saw how Frank was looking at artist’s ideas. I had never seen an architect do that. He was taking all these threads of contemporary art and incorporating them into architecture,” he says.
Los Angeles at that time was crackling with creative energy, generated by a cohort that included Gehry, not to mention artists Robert Irwin, Doug Wheeler and James Turrell, whose work, says Fisher, “was about the experience rather than the object.” It was something he took to heart in one of his first commissions—a residence for a ceramist. “She didn’t want competition from a work of architecture. I had to wring out the complexity and quiet my work down to provide a setting for hers,” he says. “Architecture is a container and frames things—art, life. It has to have an enduring quality of silence.”
The lessons learned from art and artists, gallerists and curators, still play a role in his work. “Art heightens your visual language and your sensitivities,” he says. “We become more sophisticated as designers by understanding the techniques and the artifacts of the arts. It makes us sensitive to light and views.”
A certain loft-like, multifunctional sensibility pervades Fisher’s buildings, be they residences or academic buildings and libraries. It’s an approach also gleaned from his years on the ground with the Los Angeles art community as its members repurposed and re-used structures to suit their changing needs. As with those urban pioneers, “we build with a kind looseness,” Fisher says. “Kids grow up, teaching methodologies change. Once something is built, it’s fairly static. We design simple, economical, flexible spaces that users will grow and evolve with over time.”
More recently, Los Angeles’s architectural history has found its way into Fisher’s practice. His firm now occupies an A. Quincy Jones building (and notably built the Sunnylands Center and Gardens at Sunnylands, to complement the Jones-designed Rancho Mirage retreat of Walter and Leonore Annenberg). The net effect of inhabiting a Jones structure is an increased interest in blurring the lines between indoors and out in projects large and small—and an interest in crafting spaces for what Jones once termed “the serendipitous encounter.” At Princeton, for example, his commissions have brought a Southern California modernist sensibility to an historic campus and have aimed to connect the life within the buildings to the larger life of the campus.
“It’s nice to be recognized in what has to be one of the strongest architectural communities in the country,” says the Los Angeles–transplant. “When I came here, I didn’t know anyone and started from the ground up. It’s a great honor to be recognized for building something unique and resonant in the community.”
FORM will be celebrating this year’s AIA Design Award Winners in a special issue. Show your support by advertising. Ad close date: October 1, 2014; material close date: October 10, 2014. For more information , contact Jerri Levi/818/726-1765.