Video: Blues guitar lays down rhythm
for architecture master’s thesis © June 3, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

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Joe Fisher started his Master of Architecture thesis presentation—the culmination of five years of work—in an unconventional fashion.

Without announcing himself, Fisher picked up a steel-stringed guitar and sat at the edge of the group of professors and industry professionals gathered on a May 2011 afternoon to critique the work of Norwich University architecture students. Before the room grew silent, Fisher began to fingerpick a loose, improvised blues melody. He wasn’t trying to entertain. He appeared, instead, to be putting himself in the right mood.

Fisher was facing the challenge of explaining what a guitar had to do with the drawings and models of a building he’d been working on since his undergraduate senior year.

“My thesis question is, ‘How can architecture capture the emotional style of blues guitar?’” said Fisher, a recent architectural graduate from Burlington, Vt.

His building—a music performance arena with outdoor space and room for shops and public gatherings—was designed around the site of the Chicago Spire, a massive, aborted skyscraper project that left a gaping hole near the Chicago River. He chose the city because of its connection to electric blues, in which the guitar tends to take the spotlight.

A visit to the city confirmed his choice, although ongoing legal battles prevented him from getting past the fence to view the site up close.

“I wanted to look for a site in Chicago that could help capture and amplify the emotions of the blues,” he said.

The lines of the building, which rise and fall and draw people several stories below ground to the performance space, were more difficult to describe. Ideas sprang from the flow and structure of the music, the classic song Crossroads in particular. In the early stages, Fisher researched the history of blues music and transcribed his feelings with quick, two-dimensional sketches reflective of both musical wave patterns and the interplay between the call and response of vocals and instruments. Over time, the idea of a three-dimensional building began to form out of these sketches and curves.

“I came into it with no preconceptions of what I wanted to design,” said Fisher. “I went through several different iterations of what I wanted to do with it, and none looked like the one before it.”

Initially, he pictured his project as something that was mobile and dynamic, in character with the itinerant lives of blues musicians. Over time, however, his vision grew larger, and the mobile idea was confined to a dock for boats that would serve as additional performance space.

“In the end, every mobile idea would have to have a home base, which is what this is,” said Fisher.

The biggest challenge, he added, was to avoid allowing the influence of music to diminish or become ambiguous as the project took shape.

John Anderson, an adjunct faculty member at Norwich who acted as one of the project advisors, spends a lot of time encouraging students to trust their senses, and to think about buildings like artists. In this case, he wanted Fisher to compose the site the way he would compose a piece of music. This is how an architect brings “magic” to a brick and mortar design, creating something enriching as well as functional, he said.

“They have a lot of skills built into who they are, and just need to learn how to use them,” said Anderson, who leads periodic seminars and design studios at Norwich.

His job was to keep Fisher on track, and to challenge him during the process. Anderson said he was impressed by the final presentation, and called the work powerful and unusual. His final advice to Fisher was to remember to keep emotion at the heart of his designs as he moves into the working world.

“What I encouraged him to do is to keep going back to the music and keep thinking about it,” said Anderson.

Fisher has accepted a job with Birdseye Design in Huntington, Vt., and planned to start work shortly after 2011 Commencement. The focus of this company, where he worked as an intern, is beautiful, creative and sustainable residential housing. It’s nothing like the giant scope of his Chicago music arena, which is fine with Fisher.

“I don't know that this project is something I’d like to take on as an individual,” he laughed.