Frederick Fisher's Houses Have Fun Built In

When Fred Levine, a newly divorced clothing retailer, asked architect Frederick Fisher to design a house for him and his two sons in Marina del Rey, his instructions were simple: "I just want you to have a good time."

Fisher had a wonderfully inventive time with Levine's new home, completed last summer.

On a tight, narrow lot, Fisher contrived an airy three-story home. A central, sky-lit atrium rising through the house's full height floods its interior with light. The bright space is very male and playful, roughly finished with raw concrete block, exposed timber framing and splashes of primary colors.

"Intrigue and curiosity in the quirky way the rooms run into one another entice Fred and his boys to constantly rediscover the delights of their intimate environment," Fisher explained. "If I have a good time designing a house, the owners should have a good time living in it."

All the homes, lofts and other commissions Fisher has designed since establishing his Santa Monica office in 1980 look as if the architect had a thoroughly good time doing them.

This feeling of profound pleasure in the act of design has gained Fisher an international reputation as one of Los Angeles' leading avant-garde designers.

His houses are always serious fun.

The first home he designed--for artist Laurie Caplin and her composer-husband Loren-Paul Caplin in Venice--featured a roof shaped like a series of waves, which look as if they are about to break among the palm trees.

A few years later, the addition Fisher designed for screenwriter Kim Jorgensen for the old home above Sunset Boulevard that once belonged to Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd) was conceived as an instant "ruin" that seems to have survived the earthquakes, fires and landslides that the Hollywood Hills site has actually suffered.

Last year, Fisher completed a house for artist Roger Herman in a ravine on the edge of Elysian Park that resembles a wedge-shaped boat sheathed in raw red plywood.

By contrast, the ranch-style home under construction for television director Phil Ramuno in the Agoura Hills is a series of ground-hugging Japanese pavilions surrounded by sheltered verandas and calm courtyards.

With all this stylistic variety, what makes a Fisher design distinctive? "I guess you could say I have a distinctive approach, rather than a particular and unvarying style," he explained. "Since each client and every site is different, how can one manner of design fit all?"

He described his design approach as "handling natural light and assembling structural pieces. Architecture," he said, "is inherently surrealist, the collage of a huge range of materials and objects put together in very personal ways. Every building is an act of art, whatever the functional demands."

A New Meaning

Surrealist and assemblage artists from 1920s and '30s, such as Max Ernst, Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp, influence Fisher's architectural method. He sees the common aim among these early Modernists as a desire to break everyday objects and images down into small pieces to put them together again with fresh meaning.

Fisher comes by his art influences honestly. His first degree from Ohio's Oberlin College was a BA in art history. He finally decided to follow in his architect father's footsteps. In 1973, he entered the UCLA Master of Architecture program.

"My coming to Los Angeles was a truly fortunate accident," he said. "UCLA was the only postgraduate architecture school that accepted me. I had never imagined living in Los Angeles. My typical Midwestern prejudices made me kind of reluctant to come to La-La Land, but soon as I got here I realized I'd made a lucky move."

Under the benign tutelage of Dean Harvey Perloff, the relatively new UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning was becoming an exciting place to study in the mid-1970s. The young and eager faculty included many of the designers who would put Los Angeles architecture on the global map in the 1980s.

The Real Revelation

"My instructors included Coy Howard, Craig Hodgetts, Robert Mangurian and Charles Moore," Fisher said. "But the real revelation was a lecture given by Frank Gehry, who was just begining to make his name as an architectural innovator and a fresh mind rethinking the stale ideologies of modernism."

After graduation, Fisher went to work in Gehry's Venice office for three years before a stroke of chance gave him his first commission, the Caplin house. A friendly fellow architect who was originally approached by the Caplins had to return to Canada.

"The Caplin house was my apprenticeship," Fisher said. "It was my first project, and I tried to pack every idea I had into it. It was a true assemblage, not only of every kind of material, shape and structure, but of architectural metaphors influenced by Frank (Gehry). I was lucky the design came off, more or less."

The Caplin house "delights in its complexity while remaining well mannered," Tim Street-Porter, a photographer and architectural writer, says in his book "Freestyle."

"Fisher has combined some of Gehry's approaches to detailing with a fresh, confident graphic style and romantic use of metaphor."

'A Sentimental Soul'

Gehry said of his former assistant: "Fred has a subtle yet sentimental soul. His later work is more gentle and more thought out. If he continues to develop, he could be first-rate."

Fisher, 39, is tall and rangy with intense brown eyes and the slightly startled air of an aging boy having more fun than he ever thought possible. Now divorced, he lives in Santa Monica with his young son Eric.

The new space Fisher recently has moved his office into on Broadway in Santa Monica is a former warehouse with high exposed timber bow trusses and unstuccoed brick walls. The office is home to nine assistants and a display of models of projects from St. Tropez on the French Riviera to Tokyo.

Some of the models reveal Fisher's continuing collaboration with artists. He designed a loft in downtown Los Angeles that included a waterfall shower by sculptor Eric Orr. Last year, Fisher contrived a witty steel and fabric sculpture titled "Earthquake Shelter" with Tony Berlant for a traveling exhibit sponsored by the American Craft Museum.

Another hat worn by the ever-active Fisher is that of chairman of the environmental design department at Otis/Parsons School of Design. Since 1986, when Fisher took on the post, he has upgraded a previously prosaic interior architecture course into a wide-ranging program that includes artists, photographers, set designers and social historians.

"The fascination for me in architecture is that it includes almost every aspect of being alive," Fisher said. "It is everything from art to social habit, from private feeling to public show. The motto of all architects should be the famous Latin dictum that 'I count nothing human foreign to me.' "

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