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Alumni Portrait: Eric Fisher '82
Jan 27, 2021 | by Catha Mayor Lamm
Architect & Entrepreneur
With a double major in engineering sciences and studio art, Eric Fisher '82 had a wide range of interests at Dartmouth — art, photography, design, writing, government, physics, and, yes, architecture. Although art was his first love, he was also naturally drawn to the challenges of problem-solving at Thayer. "I remember Professor Kennedy saying, 'You may not remember all these theories, but one thing you'll know is how to get answers to problems.'"
This affinity didn't stop at the walls of Thayer. "I was chairman of my dorm and head of the Dormitory Council, meeting every week with the heads of all the different dormitories. There were policy discussions and personality issues. I felt good about the way I solved problems with my team."
His student government experience also helped many years later in becoming an entrepreneur. "I didn't start my own business until I was close to 50. It ends up I'm a pretty good entrepreneur and it wasn't until I was able to go out and do my own thing that I really became myself as a human being, honestly. Entrepreneurialism is now part and parcel of who I am."
Who he is now is founder and owner of Fisher ARCHitecture in his hometown of Pittsburgh with his partner, Bea Spolidoro. Together, they work to make their case for what constitutes good design.
"Through writing, lectures, and projects, we're making the argument for a certain kind of human-centered, sustainable, progressive architecture — one that responds to the way people live today, but also responds to the way buildings are constructed.
"Our thought is to show respect for old buildings, to work with them, but when you build new, to do so in a way that is appropriate for today. Every building has a story that reveals information, because what are buildings after all but a sort of clothing. In the same way clothing reveals a person's shape, so too do buildings reveal the hopes, dreams, and desires of their inhabitants."
Striking an appealing balance between tradition and innovation has attracted clients willing to take some significant risks. "My clients tend to respond powerfully to the things we create and that allows me to sort of jump off bridges, if you will, with my designs and solve problems in unexpected ways.
"For example, we did a house with a 70-foot cantilever. The owners said they wanted to live above their glass factory. They had fired three architects already so I knew I had to be careful. I put my Thayer School of Engineering experience to use and took the time to collect all the data I could find on the site before drawing a single line.
"At the time, the building code required a 12-foot horizontal separation between the industrial use of the factory and the home. I made the argument that you could translate that distance vertically. Now that's a leap, but at least it was logical. It was something I could explain to the folks at the building department. Also at the time, I was teaching a structures studio at Carnegie Mellon so I certainly understood the way beams and columns go together.
"In the end, the building became an advertisement for the glass factory because it's directly over top and exactly the same shape as a billboard. At night, the whole building disappears and what do you have left? The idea. The idea of this glass structure floating in the air."
As an architect, engineering skills are useful not only for things like designing what may be the world’s longest residential cantilever, but also for fostering an overall appreciation for focus and precision.
One of his favorite Thayer experiences was working on the emergency core cooling spray nozzles of Westinghouse nuclear reactors with Professor Horst Richter. "We needed to figure out how to measure the droplet dispersal frequency and velocity. He had thought of a number of different techniques, but I came up with the idea to use a stroboscope because I was a visual guy. I was photo editor of the college paper, so I'd been reading about early photographers who messed around with a strobe. I brought that in and at a certain velocity of the strobe going on and off, it would appear to freeze the water, and from that you could measure the speed of the droplets.
"It was actually accurate. It worked. I felt like a million bucks. It was just an internship experience, but it was awesome."
Learning experientially that accuracy matters made a long-lasting impression. "So often in my profession, people are imprecise. It doesn't mean you can't be loosey-goosey and have fun, but when you're doing a drawing or communicating an idea, you need to do so with clarity. When you're solving a design problem, you have to be precise about what you're solving. It's only through that precision that you're free to find innovative and unexpected solutions.
"That's the scientific method, which was part and parcel to an engineering education. So certainly I've taken that with me my whole life."
When asked what advice he might give Thayer students today, he quickly responded, "Persistence in having a unique point of view. Do what you love and communicate your ideas as best you can. Keep making the arguments for what you believe. Be persistent. Anytime you come up with something new, you'll be told no many times. But keep pushing and sometimes you'll win! Life is a learning process. If you don't get your way, you'll be better equipped to make your argument the next time around."