The Titanic, by Stanley Tigerman (photomontage on paper, 1978)
The Titanic, by Stanley Tigerman (photomontage on paper, 1978)

Here’s what’s wrong with architect Stanley Tigerman, in his own words: he’s a bullheaded, egocentric demander of instant gratification with a short attention span, a big mouth, an unpredictable work product, and a permanent outsider’s attitude. He’s also, and most weirdly, a mystic seeker of “the ineffable,” expressed in architecture as uninhabitable space.

According to the cautionary autobiography Tigerman published this fall, Designing Bridges to Burn, that’s not a desirable cluster of characteristics for a successful career in a field that requires patience, collaboration, the art of persuasion and, for most clients, a recognizable, often traditional, style.

On the other hand, these same characteristics are the seat of anything that might be great about him. And that’s the central dichotomy in Tigerman’s totally dialectical universe, a place forever hovering in a state of irresolution and possibility. He’s waged war on classical ideals of synthesis and of absolute beauty (even as he pursued it). All of which—and it can get pretty dense and thorny—is chronicled in another new book, Schlepping Through Ambivalence, a collection of his essays published by Yale University Press in conjunction with a retrospective exhibit of his work mounted this fall by the Yale School of Architecture.

Yale professor Emmanuel Petit, who edited the book and curated the show, says the 81-year-old architect’s greatest contributions are in the realm of ideas, as critic and teacher; this may be the only architectural retrospective since the invention of photography devoid of photos of the work. “Ceci n’est pas une rêverie: The Architecture of Stanley Tigerman” opens in Chicago at the Graham Foundation on January 27.

A lot of the essays are a schlep, wandering in and out of kabbalah, Kierkegaard, and lucidity while taking Mies van der Rohe’s “descendancy,” i.e., his imitators, to task. But—chalk it up to another dichotomy—out of that jumble of theory has come some of the zaniest and most directly accessible architecture on the planet, none of it relying on mere scale for impact. Tigerman’s many projects in the Chicago area include the puppy-dog facade of the Anti-Cruelty Society, on LaSalle Street; the Skokie Holocaust Museum, with its (take your-pick) temple pillars or smokestacks out front; and, for a client in the burlesque business, an Indiana vacation home built in the shape of a dick and balls.

A satirical architectural sketch, or “architoon,” which Tigerman inventedCredit: Stanley Tigerman

Tigerman spends as much time drawing and writing as he does designing and building—he’s the author of eight books and has edited ten. Did I mention that he’s also the inventor of a genre of satirical architectural sketches he calls “architoons”?

Born in Chicago in 1930, the only child of parents struggling to make a living as the Depression took hold, Tigerman grew up in his paternal grandparents’ Edgewater boardinghouse and came of age in an architectural environment dominated by Mies and his followers. (And let’s get this straight right off: Tigerman has an abiding love for Mies, whose photo, to this day, sits on his desk. The venom is all for his imitators.) In his engaging but digressive autobiography, edited by his wife and partner, architect Margaret McCurry—who no doubt deserves a medal for that—his eccentric grandfather, Max Tigerman, emerges as one major formative influence. The other was Ayn Rand.

A satirical architectural sketch, or “architoon,” which Tigerman inventedCredit: Stanley Tigerman

Tigerman’s grandparents were Hungarian Jews who emigrated to Chicago in the early 1890s. His stalwart grandmother was the chef at the Belden-Stratford Hotel and, as he puts it, “the family’s most significant profit center.” Her husband, a tailor in the old country, became a man of leisure in America and—by default—young Tigerman’s most constant companion. Max spent his days in independent but intense Talmudic study up in the attic. At night, dressed to the nines and often with his grandson in tow, he made the rounds of the city’s Hungarian coffeehouses, to “play pinochle, schmooze, and sip schnapps.” His death, when Stanley was eight, left the boy with a stutter that plagued him into adolescence. Had Max lived longer, Tigerman says now, perhaps he would have grown up to be a rabbi. As it is, Max’s obsession fueled his grandson’s lifelong quest for something so mystical it can’t even be defined.

Stanley TigermanCredit: Michael Boyd

Tigerman was 13 when he encountered Rand’s novel The Fountainhead, with its larger-than-life protagonist Howard Roark, loosely based on Frank Lloyd Wright. He skimmed and then devoured it, he says, and promptly resolved to become an architect. Not just any architect, but one who would “buck the system” in defense of his values and—in contrast to everything Tigerman’s mother wanted for him—renounce the success that’s defined by money. When he met Rand some years later at Yale and told her she’d inspired his career, he writes, “she scanned my particularly un-Roark-like figure in a demeaning way and, dripping bile, replied caustically, ‘So what?'”

At Senn High School, however, he opted for technical courses instead of college prep, and arrived at MIT in 1948 as a scholarship student with no study habits. He played jazz piano in college, made the fencing team, and flunked out at the end of freshman year. Back in Chicago (and thanks to a recommendation from a merciful MIT dean), he apprenticed with George Fred Keck, who taught him that architects need to understand construction. In 1950, with a draft notice and Korea heating up, he enlisted for a four-year stint in the navy. And in 1956, with a couple more years of drafting experience but still without a degree, he became a registered architect by passing an exam. The next year he joined the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, where he learned to do what he would later most despise: design in the Miesian mold.

But in 1959 Tigerman got a game-changing break: he talked his way into the Yale School of Architecture, picking up both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in two blistering years and making lifelong friends that include the current Yale dean of architecture, Robert A. M. Stern. Under the influence of then dean Paul Rudolph, he also began to shuck off the Miesian influence that had been so ubiquitous at home.

A satirical architectural sketch, or “architoon,” which Tigerman inventedCredit: Stanley Tigerman

He returned briefly to the Chicago office of SOM, worked for Harry Weese for six months, and tried an equally short-lived partnership with Norman Koglin. By 1964 he was practicing on his own, working on Woodlawn Gardens, a 500-unit low-rise public housing project that was to be a “corrective” to the CHA’s dense high-rises. He also landed an exotic assignment—the design of five “polytechnic” schools for jungle villages in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh—in collaboration with Yale colleague and close friend Mazhural Islam. That project, financed by the World Bank, kept him busy for most of a decade.

His adult family life apparently proceeded just as frenetically as everything else, though there’s very little mention of it in his book. First wife Judy, the mother of his children, JJ and Tracy, suffered through the Yale years with him, but they divorced in 1968. By 1969 he had a “new bride,” JoAnn, memorable in this telling mainly for answering Stern’s introductory query “What do you do?” with “I fuck.” Six years later, that marriage was over. The one that was obviously meant to be, to McCurry, came about in 1979.

A satirical architectural sketch, or “architoon,” which Tigerman inventedCredit: Stanley Tigerman

“Fucked” pretty much summarizes Tigerman’s trajectory during the 1970s. In ’71, after seven years at the UIC architecture school (where the students had already burned him in effigy), he lost his temper at a faculty meeting, announced “take your tenure and shove it up your ass,” and walked out on a professorship. He was one of only 11 Americans selected to participate in the first Venice Biennale of Architecture in 1976, but work was so scarce he had to resort to “juice loans” to meet his small payroll. He invented a fictional critic, “Morris Lesser,” who published an interview with Stanley Tigerman (and wrote the catalog for a show Tigerman curated), and cofounded an architectural version of the Chicago Seven to revolt against Mies’s “self-anointed sycophants”—including architectural powerhouses C. F. Murphy and SOM and the entire faculty at IIT. In 1978 Tigerman summed up that effort (and the arrival of postmodernism) in a single image—a photo collage titled The Titanic, which shows IIT’s iconic Crown Hall upended and sinking into Lake Michigan.

The Skokie Holocaust Museum and its temple pillars—or are they smokestacks?Credit: © David B. Seide/Defined Space

“[I]t is fair to say that aside from Margaret McCurry, there are precious few examples of any satisfying interrelationships that I can point to with any of my other Chicago colleagues,” he writes. His mouth played a role in this, of course, but he also blames the generation of architects that preceded his—Bertrand Goldberg, Walter Netsch, Harry Weese, and “all the descendant Miesians” (except Bruce Graham)—for failing to provide mentoring and community for those who followed. He vowed to do better at that, and he has, nurturing the likes of Jeanne Gang, John Ronan, and the late Doug Garofalo.

In 1980 Tigerman and McCurry spent a three-month residency at the American Academy in Rome, where he fell under the sway of classical design and was inspired to write his first book, Versus. That year, he writes, in spite of all that had transpired, “I was persuaded to return to UIC to direct their post-professional graduate program.” By 1985 he was running the whole show, installed as director of the School of Architecture, and bent on reforming the place, which he still found stodgy, an intellectual vacuum. In an improbable eight-year run, he brought in theory-oriented “young Turks” who he says were increasingly threatening to the tenured faculty, and in 1993, he says, the latter got a new dean to fire him as director. After that, he quit his tenured professorship for the second time, and worked out a retirement contract that enabled him to launch the enterprise that has been called his crowning achievement: the alternative design and architecture school Archeworks. About this, Tigerman says, “A lot of life is making chicken soup from chicken shit.”

The house Tigerman designed—in the shape of a dick and balls—for a client in the burlesque bizCredit: Howard N Kaplan © HNK Architectural Photography

With designer Eva Maddox as his founding partner, he created a sort of anti-UIC: a hands-on school for 15 to 20 young professionals that eliminated tenure and accreditation, dissolved the barriers between disciplines, and partnered with other nonprofits on projects of social value. Their first session began in the fall of 1994, in a rent-free basement across from Glessner House. Four years later they moved to their own home, a Tigerman-designed 5,000-square-foot “shed” on a donated piece of land, a small, irregular plot between Ohio and Ontario on Kingsbury, in the shadow of the expressway ramp.

Over the course of 17 years, multidisciplinary students enrolled in Archeworks’ one-year postgraduate evening program have colloborated with more than 80 partners to complete over 40 design projects aimed at improving everything from elementary school education to eldercare. By 2008, after 15 years as Archeworks’ pro bono director, Tigerman was ready to move on. He and Maddox handed the “baton” to a new pair of leaders, Martin Felsen and Sarah Dunn, of UrbanLab Design. But last summer Felsen and Dunn resigned, saying they could no longer juggle that commitment with their private practice and university teaching jobs. And around Labor Day, Archeworks moved out of its building, which had been plagued by roof and window leaks, into smaller quarters at 440 North Wells. That combination looked ominous, but the official word is that they moved to allow for repairs. Board chair Howard Conant, noting that the smaller space seems to be adequate, says they’re considering whether to sell the building or move back in. He says there’s “always been financial stress at Archeworks, and there’s no question there are some challenges, but we’ve got two great projects going this year”—partnerships with Milwaukee-based Growing Power to help develop a 14-acre trucking depot in Bridgeport as an urban farm, and with the city to create design and program elements for the Cermak Creative Industries District.

A satirical architectural sketch, or “architoon,” which Tigerman inventedCredit: Stanley Tigerman

The long-term future for Archeworks is less clear. “I wish them well,” Tigerman says. “But when I’m done, I’m done.” In the “late autumn” of his life, struggling with the emphysema he says will take him down, he’s pondering the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an appreciation of the inevitable deterioration that comes with age. According to wabi-sabi, he says, nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. On Sunday, December 4, he’ll give a talk, “Search for Inspiration,” at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. He’s also at work on a book about displacement.

He does, however, know exactly where his own long-term future lies: in Graceland Cemetery, where he and McCurry will be buried next to artist and friend Ed Paschke. Under a granite slab cracked down the middle, McCurry will face west while Tigerman “is oriented” to the east. “But our heads are right next to each other, and it’s right above Mies’s tombstone,” he says. “And it’s just west of two buildings I did—Boardwalk Apartments, and Pensacola Place.” Pensacola Place is Tigerman in postmodern mode. Boardwalk? Clearly Mies.