The Grass is Always Greener | Architecture | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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The Grass is Always Greener

Eric Fisher is happy on his side of the fence

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How do you bring a little bit of California into Shadyside? If you are Eric Fisher, you start with a strip of grass.

A Pittsburgh native who spent ten years working for some prominent Los Angeles architecture firms, including Richard Meier and Partners and Frederick Fisher and Partners (no relation), Fisher returned to town wanting to showcase his design skills in Shadyside, where he grew up. He found an available economical site 150 feet off of South Aiken Avenue, but it was seemingly landlocked, surrounded by other houses. "No one was developing this land or even living in the [existing] house, because no one thought it had any access," explains the architect. But careful examination of the deed revealed that an unused grassy strip connecting to the street could serve as a driveway. With an entry established, Fisher began designing a new residence for himself and his wife.

The old farmhouse that occupied the site had been moved from elsewhere decades earlier and therefore had foundation problems. This condition, as well as a carpenter ant infestation, made it an easy candidate for removal. The new building foundation will go in this autumn, with completion anticipated in about a year. Viewers interested now, though, can see models and renderings of the house in the Pittsburgh Platforms exhibition at the Carnegie Museum's Heinz Architectural Center.

Fisher's new work aims for a refreshingly fluid integration of house and site. The structure is placed on the east edge of its plot so that the stylistically eclectic mixture of surrounding buildings will frame a single small courtyard, consolidating and making use of the previous hodgepodge of leftover spaces.

More dramatically, the topography of the site will change. Part of the driveway will be excavated, making room for a two-car garage and a rental unit that will be somewhat hidden from the street. The fill will be used to shield the garage and bring the ground level up to a grassy area adjoining the living-room terrace. The shifting topography will create a series of discrete outdoor spaces in harmony with the enclosed spaces of the house. Pittsburgh has plenty of sloping sites that invite this sort of clever manipulation of architecture, though they usually aren't found in Shadyside. But to the neighborhood's great advantage, Fisher's treatment here is more Hollywood Hills than South Hills.

The construction of the house only reinforces this sensibility. It is articulated as a series of stacked and intersecting boxes clad in decorative masonry block and galvanized aluminum panels with large expanses of glass. The first floor, which contains kitchen, living and studio spaces, is supported by a slender pier and actually projects over the excavated driveway. The result is a sense of soaring motion, which the horizontal joints in the metal panels only emphasize. Fisher's renderings of the interior spaces convey a similar sense of continuous movement through space, inflected but not separated by shifting wall and ceiling planes. These are classic values of modern architecture, executed humanely at a residential scale.

Some observers have called Fisher's architectural style "California Moderne," or related it to timeless designs by early 20th-century architectural legends Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, whose best works are in and around L.A. Fisher doesn't mind the comparisons, but he denies intentional imitation. "I'm working in a vocabulary I feel comfortable with," he says. "To me it looks fresh and new."

Originally, the house was going to have a full-size second floor, but budget considerations led the architect to cut it back. Fisher is actually pleased with that circumstance, which he feels helped improve the design. He was able to replace enclosed spaces on the upper floor with an outdoor deck and a grass-lined roof. According to the contractor who will install it, this feature with its planted grass will be the first of its kind on a residence in Pennsylvania.

The green roof also brings the design full-circle, because it will complete the house's sequence of grassy spaces.

The driveway, whose existence initiated the project, will have special pavers that will allow the grass to continue growing even with occasional car traffic. So no matter what floor of the house a person is on, a patch of grass will accompany them. The design thrives on the sensibility of bringing the land with you.

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