Vale J. Dale Fisher, 1931-2021
Born in Richmond on August 28, 1931, James Dale Fisher began studying architecture at the Royal Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT) and then finished the evening course at the Architecture Workshop of the University of Melbourne. Awarded with distinction in six subjects, he received his architectural degree in 1955. While still a student, he joined the highly regarded office of Seabrook, Hunt and Dale in Little Collins Street and remained there after the graduation, reaching the post of Senior Architectural Assistant. in 1956. During this time he registered as an architect in Victoria and an associate of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.
It was also in 1956 that he won the Robert and Ada Haddon Travel Fellowship, a coveted biennial award of £ 450 which was then one of the most valuable of its kind in the world. Winner of the competition with a shopping center project in Nunawading, he duly set the course for work and study abroad. Moving to the UK, he spent six months working in the London office of Riches and Blythin. He was duly joined by his fiancee and architecture student at Royal Melbourne Technical College, Marjorie Drew; the couple married at Wimbledon in early 1957. They then traveled and worked in Europe, Canada and the United States. He spent eighteen months in Edmund George Good Jr.’s office in Pennsylvania before moving to California, where the couple completed their final education and Marjorie worked for Pereira and Luckman as a designer of specialty commercial kitchens, including those of the iconic Theme Building. at the Los Angeles airport. While both had green cards to stay and live in America, they made a commitment to return to Australia, and did so in 1960.
Back in Melbourne, they opened a private practice from the front room of their rented bungalow in Camberwell. Their first major project was a new gas station and expanded car showroom on the Nepean Freeway in Elsternwick for Reg Hunt, a former customer of the Seabrook, Hunt and Dale era. They then designed the Albert Park Squash Center (1961), the Tidal River Apartments at Wilsons Promontory (1962), followed by several churches for Seventh-day Adventists in Melbourne and Geelong and many unbuilt projects for centers of bowling, country motels and dining complexes. Their early work in the residential realm included elegant Modernist dwellings in Brighton, Beaumaris, Balwyn and Ivanhoe, and further afield in Portsea, Apollo Bay and beyond.
In 1964 the firm moved to Queens Road, Melbourne, soon receiving a large order for the Mount Dandenong Sky High Observatory & Restaurant (1965-1970). A simple design with a plan of overlapping circles and an expression of wood structure, glazing and masonry, Dale considered it his most significant project and it would ultimately be listed by the National Trust. Another memorable foray into hospitality design was the new Hawthorn Tea Gardens (1970-1971), later renamed Leonda By The Yarra, a versatile function center clearly expressed in the form of a brick volume with parabolic arches and a cantilevered steel entrance canopy. Other memorable projects to emanate from the Queens Road office include the Sandringham Hotel on Beach Road (1967) and the Sebel Showrooms on St Kilda Road (1968), the latter with prominent white steel columns, a canopy cantilevered with three floors and a symmetrical glazed facade.
In 1970 the firm moved to a pair of refurbished playhouses at Wallace Avenue, Toorak, where it continues to this day under Dale and Marjorie’s son, Dale Jr. From Wallace Avenue, the firm undertook an enviable range of work to the national scale which included office towers, hotels, motels, reception centers, shopping malls, ski chalets, churches, restaurants, industrial and commercial depots, laboratories, housing estates, parks and gardens as well as residential works. Dale made a memorable foray into Melbourne’s CBD with his bold design for Mutual Acceptance House at 30 Collins Street (1973-1975), with its sawtooth bronze mirrored glass facade offering different views inside and outside. From the late 1970s a key customer was the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW), for whom the company designed new offices in Werribee (1980) and the Northern Regional Depot in Mill Park (1984). . Both buildings have been elegantly expressed with monumental rock faces, mirrored glazing and reflecting pools, in carefully appointed settings. During the ’80s and’ 90s, Dale designed over a thousand stores across Australia for leading retailers such as Sportsgirl, Lacoste, Sportscraft and Bradmans, characterized by meticulous carpentry and material selection, and by deference to the customer experience.
At its peak, the firm employed around 20 architects. Dale has maintained discipline in his office, with a staff expected to deliver quality and consistency, as evidenced by the tedious nature of drawings and specifications. He was firm but fair, arguing that the client should always be protected throughout the process. He was highly regulated and the entrepreneurs knew who the man in the bow tie was and what he stood for. Throughout his long life, he maintained great dignity and pride in the profession of architect. Widely respected and a mentor to many, he pursued what he saw as perfection in design, quality in selecting materials and buildings that would stand the test of time. A perfectionist at heart, he always offered suggestions.
J. Dale Fisher died on August 7, 2021 in the house on the Yarra River in Toorak that he and Marjorie had designed more than five decades earlier. He is survived by his wife of 65 years, three daughters (including an architect) and an architect son who continues to lead the firm.
Architecture was his life and his passion.