adobe designer throws a curve

Designer and builder Mike Fischer creates a dramatic expression of adobe architecture with the aptly named Crescent House near Santa Fe.

This article first appeared in Winter 2008 Su Casa

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Mike Fischer is a connoisseur of the curve. With a love for the wavy, convex, sweeping, and sinuous, he considers these characteristics nature’s design and wonders why we can’t live with panoramas instead of snapshots, with the soothing qualities of roundness instead of the sharpness of angles. When he had the rare opportunity to design and build a home exactly as he saw it, it’s not surprising that he created one that wraps organically around its hillside perch. But Crescent House does surprise—and not just with its curves or many wonderful details. The home’s sense of harmony, both inside and out, its improbable mix of styles and materials, and that it is artful but welcoming to everyday life elevate it above other grand and expensive homes in Santa Fe. Crescent House is, quite simply, extraordinary.

Somewhere there lies a line between design and vision. Those who cross it have a special eye but also the hard skills that turn concepts into reality. A self-described maverick, Mike fits the part in shorts, wire-rim glasses, and two things he is never without—a dapper Borsalino hat and a sweet elderly pooch named White Dog. He grew up on Mercer Island in Washington, where his parents owned a small landscape nursery. Always drawn to the shapes of the water and land around him, he studied art and architecture in college, but his ideas didn’t necessarily fit in. “International Modern style, with its straight lines and boxy forms, was the vogue in architecture at the time,” he recalls. “I remember one of my professors saying, ‘you shouldn’t even consider sculptural architecture; it’s already been tried!’”

After graduation and a year living out of a backpack in Europe, Mike and his wife packed up their belongings in the VW Microbus and joined the great hippie migration, looking for a place of freedom and inspiration. Santa Fe, a small community with deep traditions and a creative spirit, then had a near-mythic reputation. “We got here in the winter of ’70 or ’71,” he says. “We planned on camping out, but we had no idea it was so cold. We got a fast education.” Working as a construction laborer, he also began to learn about adobe, the claylike substance made from mud, straw, and sand that is the basis for the low, gentle architecture of the region. “I’ve always spent a lot of time outdoors and been interested in bringing the outside in,” he says. “The organic qualities of adobe here made it seem possible to do very sculptural work.”

The chemistry of ideas and experience coalesced when musician and artist Charles van Maanen chose Mike to design and build his home. “He showed me more or less what he wanted, but every time I would string out a foundation line, he would come along and kick it out of line,” Mike says. “I couldn’t understand that at first, but his goal was to somehow see the adobe expressed in the wall, even when it was plastered over. By hand-plastering, curving the wall, and setting some adobes so they weren’t too perfect, too plumb, we achieved what he wanted. We also hand-adzed the lintels from standing dead spruce, and he made his own doors. I did a lot of hand-crafting and saw the result. It was an eye opener.”

Since then, Mike has designed and built more than 100 homes and never forsaken adobe, as many other builders have. He even won an award from the Old Santa Fe Association for a residential compound near the plaza. Crescent House was born while he was working on a house for a client. Mike’s client proposed investing in a large-scale project that they would build, and then sell, on land adjacent to Pottery House, a bowl-shaped home near Santa Fe that is the only adobe structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

In the tradition of Michelangelo, who studied marble to see the shape within, Mike spent a lot of time on the hill where the home would be built. He watched sunsets, climbed trees, and peered through branches. “I was trying to capture what I thought would be the view and what we could build,” he explains. It was a year before design and permitting were finished and another year for construction. The process mostly went smoothly, except for a worldwide concrete shortage just after ground was broken and a challenging excavation. “It turned out to be solid rock,” he says. “The excavation that should have taken only a few days took weeks instead.”

Crescent House reveals vistas that can only be described as awesome. First, ascension from the driveway to the living space is a dramatic event. The home has a high-tech but tastefully concealed elevator made with transparent Lexan that looks like a large version of the vacuum tubes at a drive-through bank. A bronze rail cast from stones and sticks formed into abstract figures flanks flagstone steps. Hand-blown lights cast a golden glow on the railing’s patina, and the figures seem to dance. Arriving at the top reveals the stunning view below. The entire valley, incorporating the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains, the Rio Grande, and the city of Santa Fe, lies beyond. North, west, and south unfold in a single room as the eye follows its curving, graceful shape.

Crescent House features a complex design that achieves a rare elegance. “I think it is very important in Santa Fe, where we have this great climate and sunshine, to have a southwest-facing patio,” Mike says. “So that’s how it started. A freestanding circular guest house on the driveway level, inspired by a Native American ceremonial kiva, is the center. Its roof becomes the patio, and the entire upstairs living space radiates around that patio.” Steel vigas outdoors and natural wood vigas indoors express the radii. Windows, interior walls, cabinets, and even the rosy travertine floors all curve.
What makes the proportion work so well, the curve or the vast outdoor space? From the far end of the living room, it’s 80 feet to the bulbous sculptured fireplace punctuating the red kitchen. The home has little furniture and art and no need for more. The comfortable space stands on its own, avoiding the bowling alley effect of many great rooms, while inviting thoughts of walking barefoot on the warm floors, coffee in hand, pondering the life of the city below.

Typically projects the scale of Crescent House involve a team composed of a designer and a contractor. But Mike tucks those hats under his felt Borsalino. He chose hand-plastered American Clay for the interior walls and had the colors mixed to harmonize with the landscape. Flecks of straw in the great room’s warm beige walls contribute a subtle touch. They bring a pleasing nubbly texture but shine a light on them, and they glimmer like gold.
The burnished terra-cotta red kitchen serves as the exclamation point at the end of the great room. Its old yet new character invites a noisy party of friends and family to chop and stir. A sleek stainless-steel European water station in the center of the room has several sinks with bowls, strainers, and cutting boards. As traditional counterpoint, the kitchen has an antique Chinese cabinet and a rotund horno style fireplace that can cook a pizza. “Yes, I’ve actually done it,” Mike says. “And instead of a smoke hole, I put a small hole with a light so you can have a light down into the hearth in the summer, and in the winter when you have a fire, it shines through the hole and flickers on the wall.”

Because he wanted the kitchen to be an open, social space, Mike put much of the storage and a washer/dryer in an adjacent butler’s pantry. He even designed a rolling worktable that fits against the water station. In fact, the house is full of such thoughtful and inventive details. A compact office niche features an opening in the adobe wall that allows one to deal with email while enjoying the fireplace and northern view. The master bedroom closet has not only a lazy Susan for shoes, but also its own vented compact washer and dryer. “You can just do the laundry where it’s generated,” he says. “It makes it less of a chore.” Another Chinese cabinet in the bedroom is plumbed and equipped as a coffee station. “No need to trek across the house,” Mike explains.

In spite of the project’s budget, Mike avoids cavernous spaces, over-the-top details, and overuse of exotic materials, even in his indulgent bathrooms. One features pebbled walls and the coolest acrylic vanity. The master bath has gorgeous granite. “I think it’s the only translucent granite ever found,” he says. “It has this beautiful turquoise that looks like mother-of-pearl.” A wall of green glass tile, curved, of course, forms a walk-through shower with a heated back wall. But even with such luxury, the shaped space and endless views remain the stars.

Acting as general contractor and being on site every day allowed Mike the possibility of incorporating the unexpected. The solid rock removed from the hillside became part of the landscape. Mike also left rock exposed in the entry and the elevator shaft. “It’s like going up in time,” he explains, “from this ancient bedrock to your contemporary home.” He ended up liking a boulder in the middle of the circular guest house so much that he left it. “It wasn’t part of the plan; it was kind of a found object.” He also likes interesting plays on old and new, so when he saw the area above the living room fireplace where a chimney flue would customarily go, he created a reverse flue, a carved-out, lighted space that perfectly sets off the fireplace.
Crescent House is, above all, a home. Its sculptural beauty invites life, laughter, work, inspiration, and maybe even a sense of the greater world present in every view. Mike considers this his best design ever, but he refuses to be overwhelmed by it. “Oh yeah,” he says. “It was a lot of fun. I think it’s exciting and a very successful solution to this site.” So, what’s next? Mike Fischer is already well into an even bigger project, a house that wraps around three courtyards. The curves call him just as surely as the clay in a sculptor’s studio.

Award-winning journalist Marsha McEuen is a freelance writer and editor based in her hometown, Santa Fe.

Unless otherwise noted, businesses below are in Santa Fe, the area code is 505, and the prefix for websites is www.
Architectural designer: Mike Fischer, Santa Fe Adobe Design LLC, 820-0790, santafeadobedesign.com. Builder: Santa Fe Adobe Design LLC, 820-0790, santafeadobedesign.com. Owner/developer: Santa Fe Crescent House LLC. Interior design & consultation: Edy Keeler, Core Value Inc., 989-9800, thecorecollection.com. Kitchen designers: design and cabinetry by Jeanné Sei, Kitchens by Jeanné, 988-4594, kitchensbyjeanne.com; schematic design by Mike Fischer, Santa Fe Adobe Design LLC, 820-0790, santafeadobedesign.com. Adobe: Adobe Factory, Alcalde, NM, 852-4131, adobefactory.com. Appliances: Sub-Zero and Wolf appliances, subzero.com, from Sierra West Sales, 471-6742. Artwork: Series in Reds paintings by Yvette Frey, Switzerland, and Andrea Buchanan, Santa Fe. Banco cushions: Elizabeth Harris Sewing, 473-3074. Benches: mesquite benches, Antique Warehouse, 984-1159, antiquewarehouse-santafe.com. Canales: cedar canales, carving by Thor Sigstedt, Adventure Trails, 466-4403, adventuretrails.org; copper lining by Santa Fe Metal Clad, 438-3857. Chandelier: ENTRY design and glass blown by Julie Conway, Studio Illuminata, illuminataglass.com. Chinese antique cupboard & trastero: Asian Adobe, 992-6846. Closets: Jesse Martinez, Santa Fe Kitchen & Bath, 470-8975. Countertops: KITCHEN countertops and horno fireplace hearth, Marron Cohiba granite, Arizona Tile, Albuquerque, 883-6076, arizonatile.com. MASTER BATHROOM Oceano Verde translucent granite, Arizona Tile. GUEST BATHROOM underlit countertop is blue acrylic from Neo-Metro, Dahl Wholesale Plumbing & Heating, 471-1811, dahlplumbing.com. Dining table: design collaboration by Edy Keeler, Mike Fischer, Gerry Wawrek, and Steve Dennis. Doors: Santa Fe Heritage Door Co., 988-3328, santafeheritagedoors.com; Pella Windows & Doors, 474-4112, pella.com. Drum: GREAT ROOM made by Joe Chavez, Taos, and Andrea Buchanan. Elevator: Daytona Elevator, daytonaelevator.com. Engineer (structural): Jim Hands, Hands Engineering LLC, 473-7373. Excavation: Mike Zimmerman, Blotter Construction Company Inc., 989-9095. Fireplaces: design by Santa Fe Adobe Design LLC, 820-0790, santafeadobedesign.com; masonry by Alan Reeves, All Star Masonry, 471-0925. Flooring: flooring throughout is peach-colored travertine specially sized and laid on the radius, Milestone Inc., 989-1999, milestonenm.com; installation by Carol Everett, South Point Builders, 470-6981. MASTER BATHROOM Earth Tones slate, Allbright & Lockwood, 986-1715. Glass radius window & shower: Wholesale Mirror & Glass, Albuquerque, 345-6246, wholesalemirrorandglass.com. Granite: Arizona Tile, Albuquerque, 883-6076, arizonatile.com; granite installation by Sherpa Stone, 473-2273; J. Harris Marble & Granite Co.,
471-7596, harrismarblegraniteco.com. HVAC: Brian Richards, Summit Consultants Inc., Fort Worth, TX, summitmep.com. Island: KITCHEN Aqua Station, German Kitchen LLC, Fort Lauderdale, FL, german-kitchen.com. Kitchen island cart: design by Mike Fischer; millwork by Gerry Wawrek, 471-0021. Landscape: design by Mike Fischer, Santa Fe Adobe Design LLC, 820-0790, santafeadobedesign.com; design consultation by Tere Lee, Harmonia, 501-0874. Lighting: design by Judith and Arthur Reeder, Allbright & Lockwood, 986-1715; Edy Keeler, Core Value Inc., 989-9800, thecorecollection.com; and Lorenzo Mascarenas, Dahl Lighting Showroom, 471-7272, dahllighting.com. Millwork: walnut millwork by Gerry Wawrek, 471-0021. Painter: Joe Parente, 920-6061. Plaster: interior plaster color consultation by Michael and Andrea Buchanan, Rob Dean, Edy Keeler, Mike Fischer, Niko Alley, and American Clay, americanclay.com. Plumbing
fixtures & fittings:
Neo-Metro, neo-metro.com; Philippe Starck; and Kohler, kohler.com. Design consultation by Glynn Juban, Dahl Wholesale Plumbing & Heating, 471-1811, dahlplumbing.com; Judith and Arthur Reeder, Allbright & Lockwood, 986-1715; and Edy Keeler, Core Value Inc., 989-9800, thecorecollection.com. Railings: Joe Chavez. Skylights: Santa Fe Custom Skylights, 438-0040. Stains: BioShield Paint Co., 438-3448, bioshieldpaint.com. Staircase railing: cast bronze circular staircase balustrade, sculpted and cast by Thor Sigstedt, Adventure Trails, 466-4403, adventuretrails.org. Steel design & fabrication: Steve Dennis, Mesa Steel Inc., 474-6811. Tile: design by Judith and Arthur Reeder, Allbright & Lockwood, 986-1715; Edy Keeler, Core Value Inc., 989-9800, thecorecollection.com. Vigas & spruce decking: Spotted Owl Timber Inc., 474-5326. Windows: Pella Windows & Doors, 474-4112, pella.com.