Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2012 and has been updated with the most recent information.
Louis I. Kahn’s Fisher House was built in Hatboro, Pennsylvania between 1960 and 1967 for a well-respected doctor, the late Norman Fisher. In 2012, Norman Fisher’s children began the process of prepping the house for sale through the National Trust, which is in charge of ensuring that its architectural integrity is preserved. Preservation-minded couple Charles Firmin-Didot and Bianca Sforni became the new owners of the home and have been painstakingly restoring it ever since. Here, Norman Fisher’s daughter Nina writes about what she learned from growing up in a Louis Kahn house.
I was all of three years old when my parents, Norman and Doris Fisher, met Louis Kahn for the first time. After several disappointing meetings with area architects, they asked Lou to design a home for our family in the north-of-Philadelphia town of Hatboro, about a half a mile from where we lived above my dad’s office.
Since we already had a place to live, my parents had the luxury of time to make sure they got our new house right. They didn’t press Kahn to hurry through plans, and they didn’t accept the first design he laid out on paper. They became a team, my parents and Lou, assessing needs versus desires, considering fiscal constraints, and scrutinizing Lou’s many drawings, plans, and scribbles. They fully embraced his visionary approach and poetic take on architecture.
The process of design and construction took seven years. Although I was a mere toddler at the start, I had become an impressionable 10-year-old by the time we finally moved in.
My parents included my sister and me in the lengthy process, when appropriate, and I can recall times when we went to Lou’s office in downtown Philly. After office hours, he would toss the front door keys down to my dad from his studio window so that we could let ourselves in. My parents and Lou would go over plans while I busied myself exploring the office.
These meetings at his office and our home, as well as his social visits after completion of the house, formed the basis for my own relationship with Kahn — one removed from the demands of construction and fully defined by my bond with our home. I overheard talk of light, form, and function, and while I didn’t recognize it at the time, these elements embedded themselves into my subconscious. My awareness of these essential features strengthened once we moved into the house, a place that I thought of as my own personal play space.
I loved the ever-shifting light streaming into the living room and the airiness of the high-ceilinged room. I would clamber onto the top of an inset window box with book in hand to read. Perched some 18 feet above the ground outside the windows, I felt as if Lou had built a soaring treehouse perch just for me. This very personal space seeded my fascination with trees and nature in general—an interest that continues to this day.
I found other uses for the house that I’m certain Lou didn’t anticipate, but surely would have appreciated. Using the built-in desk in my second-story room to anchor a thick rope, I tossed the rope out the window box to the ground, shimmying up to my room and sliding back down for unconventional access to and egress from my room. The secret outdoor cabinet, disguised window screens, and window bench with a TV hidden inside all became fodder for impressing my school friends.
My bedroom became a space that easily adapted to my changing interests because it provided all the basic elements of a pleasing space: light, warmth, security, and versatility. I housed tropical fish, hamsters, and chameleons in my room. I set up a large box inside my closet with pillow and blanket to create a cave-like reading nook more private than the living room perch. As I grew older, I began to crave a way to use the light in a more functional way. Through high school, I populated my room with more than 60 plants, transforming the space into something more akin to a greenhouse than a bedroom — a photosynthetic haven.
After I moved out, I remember thinking, “How will I ever have a house that matches the standards of my parents’ house?” With time, I realized I probably wouldn’t, but that I could take the lessons of my childhood home with me: a house that honors light, encouraging it to enter, playing with it, and changing mood as the character of the light shifts. Kahn said to my mother once, as she interviewed him before a group of people toured our home, “without light you don’t have space or, you might say, a room, and so a room is made of a character of light.”
Along with the overarching importance of light, our home taught me the concept of an honest building. A building that uses real materials—wood, stone, glass, plaster. A building that meets the desires of its inhabitants, but anticipates the needs of future occupants and visitors. A building that is pleasing and surprising from all sides and angles since Lou adamantly opposed the idea of a “back of a house.” A home in which the solidity of stone, the warm hues of wood, the rough texture of plaster walls, and the transience of light all meet to create a holistic and gratifying space.
If a house can teach—and I think it can—that’s what my childhood home, through the genius of Lou Kahn, has taught me.
Nina Fisher is a writer and editor, specializing in environmental issues. She lives in Annapolis, MD, with her husband and two children.