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Profile: Nicole Fichera

Name: Nicole Fichera
Job title and company: Designer, Hacin + Associates
Degree(s): BS in Architecture from Northeastern University
Professional interests: Designing environments for people to make more powerful connections with each other.

What are you working on now?

The Boston Innovation Center. It’s a 12,000-sf building in the waterfront Innovation District, the first building in the Seaport Square development. It will be an event and coworking space dedicated to promoting innovation and supporting Boston’s entrepreneurs.

In the end, it’s a very public building that’s flexible enough to support any possible use we could think of and probably some that we haven’t imagined yet. It could be a coworking space; it could host conventions and galas, club nights, pop-up galleries and retail, classes or hackathons . . . who knows. Probably all of those things, and lots more. The space is about 8,000-sf (plus a 4,000-sf restaurant), with a meeting space for 250 seats, auditorium style, so the scale is more manageable for small groups and entrepreneurs to hold conferences and events than other convention spaces in the neighborhood.

How do you explain to your mom what you do for a living?

I don’t think there should be any major difference in how we explain what we do to our parents or society at large or each other. I want to make spaces that give people energy and make them feel safe. That translates a lot of different ways: Energy can be restorative or inspirational; safety can be physical or mental or emotional.

A few years ago, I was wondering about the word “aesthetic”: what it really means, how it affects us, whether it’s actually important or not. A lot of the time, you can find keys to the ways that words work by studying their opposites. The opposite of aesthetic is anaesthetic—something that makes you numb, that removes your ability to feel or react. So if anaesthetic puts you to sleep, then aesthetic wakes you up. A space can be aesthetic. It can give you energy, make you feel alive. And I’m sure everyone can think of spaces that are anaesthetic: a windowless office, a terrible classroom. So I like to think of architecture in those terms: spaces that give us energy and make us want to share ourselves.

What inspired you today?

I get inspired by T stations a lot. I like spaces that are pushed to their limits in efficiency, in moving people or being durable, or spaces that do a lot with a little or spaces that function in totally different ways for different user groups. There are little cues around us all the time that tell us when to go and when to stop, when to rest or when to rush, when to be ourselves or when to be guarded.

What architectural buzzword would you kill?

Any one that can’t be easily explained in one sentence. I think overly complicated language is often the result of an unclear thought process. Sure, the process of getting a building built is complicated, but that doesn’t mean that the way we talk about architecture needs to be complicated. A deep, rigorous thought process begins and ends with a clear explanation. Language can be nuanced, yes; expressive, yes; even intricate—but the intricacies should carry you through to a clearer understanding rather than getting in your way.

When you’re working, do you discuss or exchange ideas with your colleagues?

Absolutely. I have to. When you bounce a good idea back and forth between good people, it gets better. And the only way I really get any smarter is by talking and listening to smart people.

What are you reading?

Lots of things! I just finished Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction series, Dune. Amazing. Highly recommended. Lots of fascinating ideas for architects about thinking forward into the future, about how spaces can affect their inhabitants, about how materials and resources might evolve, about the economics of scarcity. I’m also reading Betterness: Economics for Humans by Umair Haque, an economist who writes for the Harvard Business Review. He writes about a holistic definition of economic value that includes environmental and social inputs on the balance sheet. And At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. He’s one of my absolute favorites. He digs into places and people with so much wonderful curiosity, with sensitivity and humor.

Do you sketch by hand or digitally?

Both. I tend to sketch by hand to work out ideas in perspective quickly, and then I do lots of quick “sketch” 3-D models on the computer to test how it all fits together.

Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?

Yes! So many wonderful and unexpected roads: magazine editing, video production, event planning, writing, speaking, from a creepy unused MBTA egress stair to the totally burnt-out shell of an apartment hit by lightning.

Where is the field of architecture headed?

Anywhere it wants, if it’s bold enough to go there! It’s an uncertain time to be working, to be alive. We can use the uncertainty of this time to redefine the way other people see us and the way we see ourselves. But it requires taking a good, hard look at what those perceptions are, at the assumptions we make that hold ourselves back—and probably taking a few more risks than we’re used to.

If something is important to you, look at it one more time. Ask one more question. Practice one more hour. Research deeper. Bring it up again. We can’t be afraid to push for the things we believe in—and often, it takes less effort than we think.

Can design save the world?

Not by itself. I’m not sure if any one thing or one person can save the world. We have to engage in a broader conversation so that we can make our work better and more effective, to understand what people really need. We have to ask them—and ourselves—better questions. Instead of “Does design matter?” maybe it’s more like “How can design matter?” It makes for a more proactive discussion, rather than an endless (and useless) argument of yes or no.

What do you hope to contribute from your work?

I like to get people talking, not so much about my work but to each other. I try to design environments or situations or events or systems in such a way that it allows people to connect with each other in the best way possible. It’s kind of a slippery goal, and I’m still figuring out what it means.

If you could give the you-of-10-years-ago advice, what would it be?

Keep doing what you’re doing. It always leads somewhere good. This is a world full of voices. Don’t be afraid to use yours.

Your favorite Boston-area structure?

Probably the Zakim Bridge. That’s the kind of bold, transformational design that can change the image of a city. I still remember driving over it the first time and feeling the difference from what was there before.

Who would you like the BSA to interview next?

I’d love to hear from James Miner at Sasaki [Associates]. [That firm has] always got fascinating stuff going on. Or Ben Uyeda—he’s working on some inexpensive DIY design projects at FreeGreen.

If you could sum up your outlook on life in a bumper sticker, what would it say?

Smiles are more powerful than you think.

Fichera moderated a disussion among emerging professionals for the ArchitectureBoston Change issue (Spring 2012:Volume 15 n1). Read "Wide Open."