It’s a dangerous thing to attempt to categorize Stanley Tigerman, but it’s probably safe to say that Chicago’s resident architectural curmudgeon is not a preservationist.
When an audience member at a lecture last week at the Chicago Architecture Center asked the notoriously crusty architect and educator what people living in his structures could do to help sustain those buildings for the future, he replied, “What will be will be.”
Also, “People die, things change.” And “this too will pass.”
Tigerman said he’s not looking for the kind of veneration for his own work afforded, say, the Mies van der Rohe building he lives in.
“My buildings—I’ll be happy if one or two show up in the history books,” he said. “But save them? I don’t think so.”
According to Tigerman, architecture, practiced properly, is an act of criticism, requiring bravery and ethics. He’s an admirer of Jeanne Gang and a fierce critic of what he calls “a whole army of architects who diminish the discipline.”
As for any aspiring young architect’s chances of real success? “If you’re willing to work 18 hours a day, sell your mother for a nickel, are in the right place at the right time, and are lucky, you might have a 15 percent chance.”
If that’s not discouraging enough, Tigerman hypothesized that, although technology’s going to give us a much better world, the profession of architecture might vanish in the next ten to 40 years—taken over, like so many other jobs, by artificial intelligence. As a step in that direction, he cited a 3-D printed building designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and, well, printed out in 2015.
And he announced that Archeworks, the public interest architecture laboratory and postgraduate training center he founded in 1993 with his wife and professional partner, architect Margaret McCurry (and where he worked for 15 years for “zero dollars”), is probably going to close. Its director, Andrew Balster, exited last summer to take a new job. Of this pioneering concept and effort, Tigerman said, “Everything has a time.”
Tigerman is in a wheelchair and on oxygen, and says he “feels as embattled now as ever,” but nothing kept him from speaking without notes for an hour and half, explaining—among other things—the most glaring contradiction in his famously nonconforming career: his reverence for Mies. He was a founder of the architectural Chicago Seven, a group that came together in 1976 to oppose the hegemony of Mies’s modernism, which had ossified into the ubiquitous International Style. They mounted an upstart exhibit (in opposition to a contemporaneous one at the Museum of Contemporary Art celebrating modernism), and Tigerman created a now-iconic image of Mies’s S. R. Crown Hall building on the IIT campus sinking into Lake Michigan. He titled it The Titanic.
“Mies was always my paragon, my hero—the closest to a godlike figure in my life,” Tigerman said. “My problem was with his successors, who never really got it. My living in a Mies building is a daily challenge, an hourly challenge.”
He’s responding to that challenge by drawing again now, after taking a year off, “Forgive my lack of humility,” he said, “but the new drawings are fabulous.”
Preservation? “Not for my own work,” he told me the next day by phone. In general, “looking backward is not as interesting as looking forward. For me architecture was always fascinating because it was a kind of tabula rasa. You sit down at a drawing board—in the old days—with just a white sheet of paper, and you have to invent. That’s the challenge that drew me into this profession. The real challenge is the blank sheet of paper.”
For Chicago? “Chicago has this remarkable history,” Tigerman said. “Chicago’s the most modern city on earth, beginning right after the fire, all the way through Mies. So, yes, I guess it is worth saving.”
Two days earlier, in the same room, Preservation Chicago executive director Ward Miller announced that the James R. Thompson Center, a building by Helmut Jahn, who joined the Chicago Seven in time to be part of their 1978 exhibit, has, once again, made his group’s annual list of its own Chicago Seven: the city’s most-threatened historic buildings. Governor J.B. Pritzker, following the lead of his predecessor, plans to sell the unique, glassy structure to a developer.
Miller said the center’s atrium is one of the most remarkable interiors in Chicago, and noted that Preservation Chicago is calling for the city to designate it as a Chicago landmark, which could protect the building and its public spaces.
What did Tigerman think?
“That’s a crappy building,” he said. v