Fisher House (Hatboro, Pennsylvania)
The Fisher House, also known as the Norman Fisher House, was designed by the architect Louis I. Kahn and built for Dr. Norman Fisher and his wife, Doris, a landscape designer, in 1967 in Hatboro, Pennsylvania. Characterized by its dual cubic volumes, stone foundation and detailed cypress cladding, the Fisher house stands as a clear statement of how Kahn was working at the time, and how his work differed from that of his contemporaries. In the Fisher House, Kahn eschews the linearity of the modern plan and focuses on a simple geometry, allowing the cubes to provide a separation of public and private space. Known widely for monumental works like the Salk Institute and the Richards Medical Center, the Fisher house stands as a testament to Kahn’s ability to work with the details of small residential architecture. The Fisher House stands as the clearest example of Kahn's unique architectural style at the time, his use of the two almost perfect cubes differing greatly from much of what was being done at the time and setting him apart in his own field of design.
Dr. and Mrs. Fisher lived in a colonial style house in Hatboro, Pa., a traditional suburb outside of Philadelphia. Dr. Fisher ran his practice out of part of this house. The Fishers wanted to move into a new house, nearby that would operate more efficiently as a home and business. They chose a site that, though tucked in among the rather dreary typical suburban houses, had a stream running through the middle of it and held the promise of a special place.
The Fishers met Louis I. Kahn in 1960. He was their second choice as architect, but a generous working relationship soon developed. The Fishers set a budget $45,000.00 and Kahn was forced to strike three rooms from the first sketch plan he drew. Kahn was already working on the Salk Institute and the Capital Complex, in Bangladesh, so he was fortunate to find such patient clients, as the design process was quite lengthy, taking 7 years to complete.
There were several different schemes proposed before Kahn and the Fishers were both satisfied. If some small thing needed to be changed, Kahn would start over with the design, feeling that the total composition would be compromised if things were simply altered. In the very first scheme, the two separate square volumes are apparent. The circulation is mostly vertical and separated within each volume. In this design, Kahn had the large stone fireplace, which would separate the living area and dining area. Kahn would stray far from this original concept, even incorporating a circle in square motif, before he returned to the idea of two volumes. It was while in Dacca, Bangladesh working on the Capitol Complex, that Kahn discovered the idea of two cubes intersecting at an angle. His initial plan called for one volume to be masonry and the other to be wood. Kahn eventually relinquished this idea, due to budget restrictions, and the final plan is a masonry foundation and plinth with the two wooden cubes resting on top. The wood is meticulously crafted with deep window pockets and built-in cabinets, tables and seating almost as if the house is a large and complex piece of furniture in and of itself.
The Fisher house, though a small residential project, came during a time of intense work for Kahn and allowed him to explore some of the ideas that would appear in later large works.
Site and context
The Fisher House is located in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, a small suburban community outside of Philadelphia. Hatboro was originally farmland, with the first land titles being issued in 1711, but as was the case in rural places in close proximity to cities, began to grow dramatically after World War II. At the time of construction, Hatboro had a population of about 7,300. According to the latest census figures the population level is almost exactly the same today. The house is sited along the top ridge of a slight hill just off of Mill Road. Its entry faces the street and is much more closed on this side. At the rear of the house lies a small wood and a creek runs along at the bottom of the hill. Stepping away from traditional siting methods, Kahn turned the living quarters to face the northeast so that the view of the woods could be framed in the dramatic double height window construction. The majority of housing in Hatboro is typical Neo-Colonial suburban housing of the post war years. The Fisher house stands out as distinctly modernist in its context, though the house is less modern than it could have been. Kahn had originally planned on an all stone construction but was forced away from that idea due to the prohibitive cost of building in all stone in Pennsylvania. The all stone designs also would have lacked the warmth and homely atmosphere he and the Fisher family wished to create with the design of the house. Because Pennsylvania is cold in the winter and warm in the summer, Kahn included double windows in the house. Double windows allow sunlight into the house in the winter when it is low on the horizon and keeps it out in the summer when the sun is higher in the sky. This allows for passive solar energy transfer in the winter but reduced transfer in the summer.
Form and use
The Fisher House uses form to separate the different programmatic uses of a home. The public and private are divided between two distinct two story nearly cubic volumes. Kahn can even be quoted saying that "I always start with squares," so the cubic nature of this project is not at all dissimilar to his other works of the period. The private volume is aligned along the north–south axis and the public, which is rotated exactly 45 degrees, is aligned along a northeast southwest line which runs parallel to the driveway. The public volume intersects the north face of the private with its southeast corner. The public space, which is perfectly square in plan, holds the entrance corridor and the master bedroom at ground level and two other bedrooms above. The second volume is slightly off square, having a rectangular plan, and holds the living, dining and kitchen space in a double height room. There is little distinction between the spaces dedicated to these three rooms and their differences from each other, encouraging a communal experience of the space. Throughout the house there are deeply recessed windows. These allow light in during winter and keep out direct light in summer. The recession of the windows provides further use than simply the circulation of light and air through the home. Kahn often used the windows indentations into the home to create occupiable spaces, such as benches, as well as storage spaces in the home such as closets and bookshelves. These uses were seen as very innovative at the time. The best example of these changes can be found in the main living area near the large hearth. Kahn created details out of the window ledge, and created not only a seating area, but also a set of selves for out of sight storage. The deep recession also allows them to be opened during storms without allowing rain to come into the house. There is a large stone hearth just off center in the living cube that creates a slight separation in the living room and the kitchen area, but the kitchen still opens more to the public realm that was traditionally the case at this time. The decision to create two distinct volumes was driven by the original dual design requirement of home and physician’s office. Though the office was dropped, the two volumes remain and serve well the need for privacy in a home.
The Fisher House lies in the midst of a prolific period of design for Kahn. It is bookended by the Margaret Esherick house and the Phillips Exeter Academy Library and was built during the same period as the Salk Institute. Like many architects, Kahn used his housing commissions to test his ideas about architecture. Kahn sought a sense of monumentality and longevity in his work, but also strove to bring the ideas of modernism to a place of familiarity. In the Fisher house, Kahn uses the stone plinth to create a sense of timelessness. In this plinth he has created a piece of archeology. The woodwork used in the Fisher house creates the sense of warmth and tradition to an otherwise starkly modern design.
The foundation of the home is built entirely of stone in, for Kahn, a traditional style of building. The stone foundation was necessary due to the home’s placement on a slope and its need for a solid anchoring into the ground of the site. The exterior and interior portions of the home are made from the same cedar wood sourced from the local Pennsylvania area. This was done to keep down costs. The woodwork of the Fisher house is often viewed as the most comprehensive of any of his woodwork during the period. Later projects were said to lack the continuity of the Fisher House, often smaller details such as interior doors were left unadorned in a way that left the project feeling incomplete to viewers. It was best in the end that Kahn was not allowed to build from all stone, because if he had the home would have been lacking in much of the great detail work that makes it so famous. The use of cedar wood throughout the interior and exterior of the home compelled Kahn to create amazing details in the building simply by folding windows into the building envelope to provide new habitable space on both the interior and exterior of the building. Had Kahn been left to build the Fisher House entirely from stone on the exterior then the details he created from windows never would have come into existence.
- William Pierson Booher, Louis I. Kahn’s Fisher House: A Case Study on the Architectural Detail and Design Intent. (University of Pennsylvania, 2009), 29.
- Booher, Louis I. Kahn’s Fisher House, 30/31.
- Booher, 32.
- Booher, 48.
- Gast, 112.
- Gast, Louis I. Kahn, The Complete Works, 110.
- Joseph Rykwert, Louis Kahn. (Harry N. Abrams Inc. New York, NY 2001), 110.
- Rykwert, Louis Kahn, 110.
- Rykwert, 110.
- Fisher House page at Wikiarquitectura
- Fisher House image of dining table
- Arch-Times Norman Fisher House: House of the Week
- Pierson William Booher: Thesis on Fisher House, University of Pennsylvania, 2009