In 2001 the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois thought it had found a home for its new museum and educational center, in a residential neighborhood in Skokie. But early last year Skokie Village Board officials rejected the plan after a series of volatile hearings where future neighbors voiced objections, including their fears of vandalism.
The search went back to square one, and Stanley Tigerman, the plan’s architect, was angry. “‘Furious’ doesn’t even do it. I tend not to be detached from projects and I have a quotient of passion attached and it’s an important project,” he says. But the famously quick-tempered Tigerman kept quiet.
For years he’s been the headline-grabbing gadfly of Chicago architecture, journalists’ go-to guy for witty wisecracks and piercing critiques of colleagues. He has nearly 200 completed projects, more than 100 design awards, six books, and a school to his credit, but what he’s somehow still best known for is his candor. The Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin once described him as the “Chicago design maven who can spit venom like a snake.” Tigerman says he corrected Kamin, told him “I would have used the word ‘spew’ rather than ‘spit.'”
But in Skokie, Tigerman was uncharacteristically reticent. “I know trouble is my middle name, but I don’t want to make trouble. My mouth has gotten me in trouble a lot in the past and I don’t want to hurt the Holocaust survivors. I love them, I respect them, and I want to do a great job for them. I’m busting my balls for them.”
He’s held his tongue and kept a low profile as he tinkers with his design and tries to help raise the $25 million it’ll take to build the museum and endow it. “In the context that it is the purview of the aged to hold grudges–which I’ve been practicing for many ages,” he says, “how are you going to hold a grudge against your neighbors?”
Last January the complex finally found a home–thanks to a full-court press by the village, the Holocaust Foundation, and the Cook County Forest Preserve, which owns some of the land the foundation will now build on just west of the Old Orchard shopping mall. It was land the foundation originally could not afford, but the recession brought down the price.
If Tigerman’s reserve signified a transformation, he attributes it in part to an interview he did for an oral history project conducted by the Art Institute. The 500-page transcript horrified him. “I realize I use words like ‘fuck’ and ‘jagoff’ and it’s not so great, and I call people assholes. So you’re talking to the new Stanley Tigerman.” But that’s an idea he doesn’t take too seriously. “You just get older. You know the phrase ‘mellowed out’? I haven’t really mellowed out. The office calls me a rabid teddy bear.”
Even so, Tigerman’s silence about the Holocaust project continues. There’s a reason. “I want to build this. I want to build it bad,” he says. “I have never built for my own kind. I’ve never done a synagogue, a temple. Nothing.” He says he told the foundation’s representatives “it would be the project not only of a lifetime but it would be the project I’ve been waiting for.” Tigerman is 73. “And it was true. It touched them and they hired me.”
Here’s a line he uses often: “You know, I’m Jewish, and the Jewish god established a quota for Jewish architects. They can only work on so many suburban homes for Jewish American Princesses and I reached my quota five years ago.” He’s happy to share his wife’s blunt assessment of him–“You’re now at the stage where you design bridges to burn.” He says it’s time to give back, time to focus on the ethical and moral obligations of architecture. Tigerman won’t call the Holocaust Foundation project a museum. “It’s a memorial, which is different than a museum, and it’s an education center.” As with so much of Tigerman’s work–schools and libraries that wrap their pastel arms around children at risk, animal shelters that look like dogs’ faces, houses shaped like penises–metaphor plays a starring role.
He designed the memorial in two parts–the first “about darkness,” the second “about light”–separated from each other to represent the Holocaust’s attempt to “break” the history and spirit of the Jews. “I’m trying to get as many metaphoric elements as possible,” says Tigerman. He describes one building as “tortuous,” says its exterior, of anodized aluminum, “will darken, will have a grimness to it.” The second building, the education center, will be clad in white baked enamel.
Visitors will enter the dark building and “disrobe” in a staging area, leaving behind their coats in a reference to the stripping of Jews entering concentration camps. They’ll move into a dark lecture hall to hear from Holocaust survivors and their descendants. Then they’ll head into an exhibit on Europe’s Jews before the Holocaust and encounter Kristallnacht. Passing through a gate “a little bit like a guillotine” into a space reminiscent of the Warsaw ghetto, they’ll begin a descent into a cambered cone. They’ll come across rows of dark, distorted wooden buildings, and through their windows see the belongings and artifacts of victims and survivors. Visitors are on their way “down to the Holocaust,” says Tigerman. He wants to convey chaos and fear.
Inside a darkened circular room below ground level, visitors will look at footage of prisoners in concentration camps. Then they’ll begin to ascend into the light, rising to a Hall of Reflection cracked open to the sky. “The only light’s coming in from the east in anticipation of the messianic age,” says Tigerman. “You can go right or left–the Jews never had choices. They’re looking at exhibits in a post-Holocaust world. They’re trying to educate themselves through choices.” The exhibits here might commemorate other atrocities, other massacres and genocide. A staircase hugging the wall of the cone will lead to its truncated top and the “Book of Remembrance.” Here visitors will cast shadows on the illuminated names of people killed in the Holocaust as they drop stones of remembrance–in keeping with Jewish burial traditions–they were handed at the start of their journey.
Visitors can now continue to the library, lunchrooms, a special events hall, temporary exhibits, classrooms, or storage. But they’ll all eventually end up in “Epilogue,” where they can record their impressions and exit into a grove of crab apple trees. Beyond them will be a semicircular garden “celebrating the role of the Righteous Christians.”
There will be no turning around and going back. “Every museum you go into, you go out by going out the same door, so if you had an epiphany it’s denuded,” Tigerman says. “To come out the same door you came in problematizes any authority that the building might otherwise have. It takes away the experience. The Jews, when they went on fucking cattle cars or when they were gassed…didn’t have the convenience of coming out the same way.”
A few years ago, on the evening of his 70th birthday, Stanley Tigerman taught a class on architecture and morality. The setting was the design school he’d launched in 1993, a monument to his moral principles called Archeworks. Located beneath the Ohio feeder ramp on Kingsbury Street at River North’s western edge, the school occupies a warehouselike space designed by Tigerman and designer Eva Maddox of Perkins & Will. Its mission statement calls Archeworks “a multipurpose education and retraining design laboratory dedicated to advancing a social agenda.” Tigerman’s shorthand is “do-tank.”
“Archeworks, though unique, is in every designer’s heart, I would submit. Every designer wants to do something good,” Tigerman told his audience, a mixture of Archeworks students and visitors from the Bauhaus-Universitat Weimar, which is what survives of the art, design, and architecture institute the Nazis tried to wipe out. “I’m trying to burn into your brains that all of the subjects of design have at their hearts the subject of morality….To cause something to be built, you have to have something within you….That really comes from a belief system that’s very deep in you, and that belief system is rooted in ethics and morality.”
Archeworks’ mission, according to Tigerman, is shaped by issues such as aging, disability, homelessness, the urban underclass, and housing. “Architecture is about urbanity. It’s not about nature,” Tigerman says. “So Archeworks is about the city.” And not just any city. “Archeworks is about Chicago,” he says. “Archeworks, like Frascati wine, doesn’t travel well.”
In its ten years, 96 people have completed the one-year postgraduate program. About a third of the students come from traditional architecture backgrounds and another third from the design world; the remainder defy easy categorization. Tigerman recalls two women in their mid-50s–one a senior official in the Chicago archdiocese, the other a former Florida lobbyist who came up from Tallahassee by bus. “People come here because it’s hands-on, in the trenches,” he says. His goal is “to skew the trajectory” of these people. “Archeworks is not about making big plans like Dan Burnham. Archeworks’ motto is, ‘Make no big plans but let every little one be the best that it can be.'”
Archeworks students divide their time between classwork and hands-on projects. They gather for three hours a week. In the fall they generate a paper a week for Tigerman’s seminar on morality and ethics. In the spring they do the same for Maddox’s class, “Future Studies.”
Past projects have had students creating a light, inexpensive head pointer for people with cerebral palsy and furniture accessible to people with limited mobility. Students under Maddox’s supervision created a booklet detailing how small porches and safe lighting paths could be used to create “socialization spaces” for Alzheimer’s victims. They designed kitchens for the disabled and helped the Illinois Department of Human Services redo its offices. Archeworks created better spaces for disabled children at Northbrook’s Cove School.
The three projects done by last year’s class of 15 students were the usual mix of design, architecture, and social policy. One group explored intergenerational housing. Another helped local hospitals and community health clinics develop “places of respite for nurses.” Nurses, as Tigerman puts it, “don’t have their own offices. They don’t have places. They have shit.” The third project, says Tigerman, was “about withholding good design.” He wonders who does it and why. “Is it just value engineering? Is it not racism? Is it not sexism? Who withholds good design?” He offers Chicago public housing projects as a prime example. “Was that done in a benign way?” Tigerman asks. “Was it done in a venial way? Who did it?”
Archeworks changed somewhat this year. “We’re getting into entrepreneurship,” says Tigerman. “I have to sell these products.” Which is to say he’s stopped resisting Maddox’s view that “things that are designed should be in the marketplace.” But his heart’s not in the moneymaking. “Architecture, I’ve always thought, is a moral obligation. You have to be able to say no. You don’t have to accept every client.”
Tigerman and Frank Gehry met when Gehry brought him into a Sacramento project. “He was doing this Renaissance stuff then,” Gehry says, laughing. “I just plod along with one sort of language and Stanley tries on different suits….He can be a postmodernist. He can be an archmodernist. He’s very prolific….He’s curious. He accepts the world as it is and he says, ‘OK, if this is what we’re doing now, let’s try it.'”
Tigerman’s wife and partner, Margaret McCurry, thinks her husband’s best buildings are the Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which he did in Chicago in 1977, and two residential projects. One’s a late-80s apartment complex in Fukuoka, Japan, in which “he actually tried to make something responsive to Japanese values” using light and a courtyard and a “grid [that] moves in and out of the building.” McCurry also likes Tigerman’s “black barn” in Berrien Springs, Michigan, a house covered in black shingles and asphalt. “He’s taken a classic barn shape and done a transformation on it.”
Tigerman refuses to name a favorite. “I do a building I love it. When it’s done and built, it’s out of me,” he explains. “They’re all my children, but like a father I let them grow and get distance from me.” He remembers the so-called phallus house designed for a dying client. “That undid me so I decided to make the guy laugh.” But another owner put on an addition. Tigerman grabs a piece of paper and sketches a big penis with testicles–his design. Then he draws the addition–a square attached to the top of the penis “like a canker sore.” He puts down his pen and says, “So how can you remain emotionally attached?”
Perhaps his biggest project was the five polytechnic institutes done for the World Bank and the government of Bangladesh between 1966 and 1975. Architect Muzharul Islam got the commission on the condition that he collaborate with a Western architect. He turned to his friend Stanley Tigerman, whom he’d met at Yale. Together they weathered the 1971 revolution in which East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh, though in the course of it Tigerman resigned.
“I couldn’t work for despots,” Tigerman recalls. About a million people were killed that year in fighting between the native Bengalis and a West Pakistani army of occupation that was driven out when India invaded. With peace restored, Tigerman returned to the Bangladesh project, but not everyone was happy. “The World Bank was furious. Furious,” says Tigerman. The Bengalis wanted him back. “The World Bank said, ‘Forget it. He turned this into a political thing. He’s gone.’ They said, ‘No, no you don’t understand. We want him back.’ And they won, and I came back and I finished the project.”
The Library for the Blind demonstrates a key to much of Tigerman’s work–the notion of reversal. “Library for the Blind was done so that able-bodied people would be in envy of the library,” Tigerman explains. “It is in code and can be decoded.” Because many blind people can make out primary colors “bathed in light,” Tigerman made the library’s structure yellow and clad it in red steel, with black floors, white interior walls, and blue electrical conduits and exposed ducts. “It’s not an arbitrary selection of colors,” he says. “It’s to let them read the building.”
The Chicago Bar Association headquarters on Plymouth Court, built in 1990, was designed by Tigerman and McCurry. “We busted our asses to make it neo-Gothic,” Tigerman says as he drives by one day. Traditionalism isn’t typical of his work, but he says developer J. Paul Beitler “had some notion that it should look like Ivy League colleges” even though “most of the goddamn lawyers in Chicago…went to DePaul. They went to John Marshall. They didn’t go to Yale Law School.”
With that off his chest, he says, “Paul is a good client because he likes to maintain buildings impeccably so you can literally eat off the floors in his bathrooms. He’s a good client also because he’s willing to put resources into buildings. That makes him a treasured client.”
The buildings that Tigerman mentions time and again are ones he’s done for the disabled and for children. A couple of years ago he finished the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center at 13th and Damen, a 22,000-square-foot public facility that allows police, state’s attorneys, doctors, and social workers to work in teams on behalf of abused children. With its atria, metal roofs, and warm tones, the center bears some resemblance to the Educare Center, the day care facility Tigerman designed in the Robert Taylor Homes for philanthropist Irving Harris and the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “It’s a doughnut,” says Tigerman, pulling a pen from his pocket and sketching “this very benign building,” whose enclosed atrium protects the children “from drive-by shooters, drug dealers, and gang lords. So these little kids, innocent, can go out of doors per Maria Montessori and get vitamin B and C in all kinds of weather….Is it a cheap building? Absolutely not. It’s expensive. Why? Well, it ought to be.”
Harris called the results “a marvelous response to a set of problems that we presented him with,” and he was especially pleased with Tigerman’s handling of the safety issue. “Bullets would have to go through two walls,” Harris said.
McCurry calls him a “pied piper” and thinks he loves kids “because they’re nonthreatening.” When he was creating the Art Institute’s “Telling Images” installation, children “would come in every day and we’d have milk and cookies, which was a little disconcerting for the rest of the office.”
Tigerman’s two children, the product of the first of his three marriages, lived with him only during the summers while growing up. But the bond is strong. He speaks daily with his son, a Chicago investment banker, and several times a week with his daughter, a third-grade teacher in Virginia. Tigerman likes to start telephone conversations with his son by asking, “Read any Proust lately?” It’s his way of saying what he thinks about the presumed waste of a good liberal arts education. When the revolution comes, Tigerman warns him, the first stop will be your Glencoe home, address courtesy of your father. Tigerman’s first wife, Judy, lives in Burnham Station, an apartment complex he designed, and she and their children and grandchildren all spend holidays with Tigerman and McCurry.
One frigid morning, Tigerman took his Bauhaus visitors to Burnham Station. Located at 15th and Clark, the complex consists of a 77-unit tower, which features two-story apartments with set-back penthouse terraces, and rows of town houses. The Germans were fascinated with the nine-foot ceilings, huge windows, and dazzling city views. They asked about a design idiosyncrasy of the town houses–a small, unused platform above the living room door. By opening a wall and extending the platform, another small room could have been created in the dead space. A professor asked why the builders didn’t do this and Tigerman responded, “Because they have no imagination. If it were me, I would break it open and make a little study, but the developer’s assistants were schmucks.”
Tigerman carries his bluntness everywhere. He says, “Every time I give a lecture in Germany–and I’m very popular–I start off saying, ‘Ich bin ein Jude.’ I want to get it straight from the start.” A former Tigerman client explained that he selected someone else for another project because “I didn’t want to argue with Stanley all the time.”
“It’s fun working with Stanley,” says Judy Neisser, one of Archeworks’ biggest financial supporters. Tigerman and McCurry designed her apartment. “He fools around. Because of his wit and his charisma you listen to him and he’s full of good ideas, and sometimes they’re a little crazy but you say, ‘Oh Stanley,’ and he’s done with it.”
In the year and a half he spent on Neisser’s apartment, the disputes were more often between Tigerman and McCurry. “They did argue, and they were pains. At one point, I did say ‘Shut up!'” But, Neisser adds, “One of the reasons it is so good is that I left them alone. I had had some tragedies in my life, and they were both very dear about wanting to build me some space where I would have some peace in my life. It’s just a very serene space.”
Tigerman and his wife work together only when clients ask them to, and they warn clients about the potential for friction. “It’s just that it’s easier to not have anyone question what he draws except for the client,” says McCurry, “and this is like having two clients.”
Tigerman’s identity is deeply connected to Chicago. “If the urban condition’s going to be solved, it will be solved here, and not New York, ’cause this is a place about getting things done,” he says. “It’s almost because of Chicago’s anti-intellectualism that it can accomplish something. In New York, which is a study in intellectual foreplay, it never gets done….They can talk it through. They can’t make it. They can’t kick the tires….It’s more likely to happen here where the city is based on accomplishment.”
Tigerman’s childhood in Chicago influenced his design of Archeworks, which consists of a gallery and small offices in the front, an old-fashioned wooden bar and eating area with tables in the back, and in the middle three large work spaces separated by partitions and opening onto a hallway. “When I was a kid I stuttered pretty badly, so I always dreaded the moment in class when the teacher would call my name ’cause I’d have to get up and go ‘uh, uh, uh,'” he recalls. “I always used to go to the teacher after the class in the corridor to ask questions. I did a lot of my learning in the corridor. So I always wanted corridors that were teacher-and-student user-friendly, where you can sit down with the teacher and shoot the shit and ask questions.”
An only child, Tigerman grew up in his paternal grandparents’ boardinghouse in Edgewater. McCurry says Tigerman was “quite spoiled” by his family and the tenants. He confirms this. “You don’t have to be rich to be spoiled. And I was an only child. I’m still spoiled.”
He was also, McCurry says, “a very cute little boy. He won the ‘beautiful baby’ contest at the world’s fair in 1933.” The family was poor. Tigerman’s mother’s wealthy brothers looked down on his father, Samuel, who spent the Depression picking up leaves in Lincoln Park. His mother, Emma, worked as a typist for the federal government, and his paternal grandmother was the chef at the BeldenStratford. The most important figure in his life was his grandfather, “who never worked a day in his life.” He was, Tigerman says, a Talmudic scholar and an expert pinochle player who’d take his young grandson to watch him play cards at the Hungarian coffeehouses on North Avenue. Tigerman was seven when his grandfather died unexpectedly–“my first traumatic experience.” It’s an experience he mentions when he talks about designing for children at risk.
Many of the facts and events of his childhood remain with him, among them his love of the visual arts. “He did things, like he talked his mother into getting on a bus to New York to meet Mondrian, and they walked up and knocked on his door,” McCurry says. “Now, Stanley is a fabricator–maybe he had an introduction.” But, she adds, “he did paint like Mondrian for years.”
McCurry says that as a boy her husband wanted to be a musician, but his mother “didn’t think that would be enough money.” Even so, he took six years of piano lessons, and he delights in telling how he practiced on a cardboard keyboard because his parents could afford nothing better. He studied progressive jazz at Senn High School and met Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, and Johnny Guarnieri. At MIT, Tigerman played jazz on a Boston radio station, and in his navy days at Florida strip joints. “In between acts,” he recalls, “instead of just dead silence, they had this schmuck playing piano–me.” He still plays privately for pleasure.
Tigerman was in eighth grade when Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead was published in 1943. Its hero, architect Howard Roark, who’d rather blow up a building than compromise it, is still Tigerman’s hero. His contempt for conventional success struck young Stanley as a perfect reproach to his income-conscious mother. “To rebel against her was to not go into doing something for success but to do something to be heroic.”
Here’s the story of his early life: “A little kid reads The Fountainhead, sees things in black-and-white, goes to MIT, flunks out.” He lasted a year there, done in by math, science, and his jazz commitments. “I flunked everything except English,” he recalls. “When I flunked out, the dean of the college said, ‘You have the lowest grades in the last half century of any student.'” Tigerman was devastated. “It’s very hard. How do you say to your peers, ‘I flunked’? There wasn’t enough time for character to evolve, so I lied. I said the dean got me a job.”
Which was true. The dean of architecture found Tigerman a job as an apprentice to his friend George Fred Keck, a well-known Chicago architect. Asked how he managed to convince the dean to grant such a favor to such a failure, he has no explanation. It was a combination of the dean being a nice guy, he says, and “sheer fucking dumb luck.”
Tigerman spent a year with Keck and left to start his own practice. It failed, he enlisted in the navy, and he almost spent his life there. “I tried out to be a cadet. My eyes didn’t make it. If I’d have made it I’d have saved the architectural community a lot of tsouris. I’d have loved it. Be a pilot? Are you kidding?”
Like Ayn Rand, the military seems an odd choice for someone of his politics. Tigerman, of course, disputes that. “The navy’s quite wonderful. It’s very clear,” he says. “It’s about hierarchy.”
After the navy, Tigerman came back to Chicago and spent two years doing suburban architecture for A.J. Del Bianco. The next stop was working for Milton Schwartz on the Executive House. “All this time I was doing product,” Tigerman says, “learning how to build. Then he was offered “a great opportunity”–junior designer for Skidmore Owings & Merrill on the Air Force Academy. “It was SOM at its most neo-Miesian,” Tigerman recalls. “Very interesting.”
All this training was invaluable, says architect Larry Booth. From Del Bianco, Tigerman learned how to do “suburban dreck, and he could do it as fast as anybody else. He was the world champion. And then, having a little experience under his belt, he goes to Skidmore….But underlying it all is the idea of doing it all well. And then this idea of whatever was going on, take it to the next level, regardless of who’s in the way.”
At an SOM Christmas party in 1958, Tigerman made the mistake that took him to Yale. By then, thanks to his apprenticeships, he was officially an architect. Looking through a book, he came across an architect credited with an MIT graduate degree but no bachelor’s. “Why not?” Tigerman figured. “I’m registered, can draw like 12 motherfuckers coming over the hill.”
Inspired by what turned out to be a printer’s error, Tigerman wrote MIT, IIT, Yale, and Harvard. MIT told him he could come back as an undergraduate. Harvard told him rules are rules. “Tore them up,” Tigerman says of those letters, adding, “I’m still waiting for a letter from IIT.” But the chairman of Yale’s architecture school sent an application with a note that said, “I’m sure I’ll live to regret this.”
Tigerman jumped on a train to New Haven. In his interview, the chairman, Paul Rudolph, asked Tigerman his intentions. Get my master’s in one year, Tigerman said. You’ll need four, Rudolph told him. They agreed on two. Tigerman worked nights in Rudolph’s architectural office–“I was exhausted”–and spent his days learning from the man he now calls one of his three biggest influences. (The others are Muzharul Islam, “father of architecture of Bangladesh, my best friend,” and the man who brought Tigerman into the polytechnic institutes; and John Hejduk, former dean of Cooper Union Institute “and the greatest architectural poet of the last half century for sure.”) Rudolph began to mold the young man.
“He was the best teacher I’ve ever had since kindergarten. He was absolutely demanding,” Tigerman says. “You did work. I believe in work. He would come and give you a ‘desk crit’ once a week. He would sit down at your desk, and if he felt you didn’t have enough drawings, models, projects, studies–whatever–he wouldn’t come again until the end of the semester and then you were fucked.”
Woe to the student whose weekly grade fell below 90. For missing that mark by one point, Tigerman was once summoned to Rudolph’s office. “So, quaking in my boots, I go down and there he is sitting in the chair,” Tigerman recalls, “and there’s a WASP–some crew-cut, Brooks Brothers, motherfucker Princeton type–sitting there, and Rudolph said, ‘Well, Stanley, I see by your grades that you’re obviously not interested in architecture any longer. I want you to meet Mr. Smith of the Yale placement bureau. The department here is willing to underwrite a series of tests to find a discipline more suited to your energies.’ So then you get down and you say, ‘Oh Pukkah Sahib’–you’re crying–‘I be good,’ and you go back and you work your balls off, which was the whole point of it, right? I loved it. I thrived on it. Those of us that didn’t end up on shrink’s couches–one kid unfortunately committed suicide–did very well.”
At 29, finally about to become a college graduate, Tigerman scraped some money together and flew his parents out from Chicago for the ceremony in 1961. He recalls walking up to his mother and handing her his degree. “‘Now you can make money!’ she said. I thought, ‘Fuck, she’ll never understand.'”
Yale was important to him even before he got there. Tigerman recalls the three questions he answered on that application in 1958. The first was, “Would you design a weekend house for Batista [the dictator running Cuba at the time]?” the second, “Would you design an urban housing project with a density greater than you thought appropriate?” and the third, “Would you design a concentration camp?” Tigerman says, “Those are Solomonaic questions. There are architects who would design a concentration camp.”
Ayn Rand came to speak at Yale while he was there. Tigerman rounded up all his buddies to see the great lady. “I walk up to her after the colloquium and say, ‘Miss Rand, my name is Stanley Tigerman. I’m in the graduate school and I just want to tell you it’s because I read your book when I was 12 years old that I became an architect.’ And in the way that New Yorkers have of looking you up and down like you’re a piece of shit, she looked at me and she said, ‘So what?’ It was a crushing but wonderful blow. It was great.” He laughs. “I can say now years later that it was great ’cause then I got it. I got it.”
Despite Tigerman’s admiration for him, when Rudolph gave him a chance to run his New York office after graduation, Tigerman turned it down. “The car was running,” he says. “I was going back to Chicago. Definitely.” The importance of roots to Tigerman comes out in his advice to students. “When you get to a certain age kids start to ask you, ‘When should I open my own practice? Is it when I get a client? When I’ve saved up some money?’ And my answer is always, ‘When you discover that you can’t take direction, ’cause you’re no longer employable.’ They say, ‘Well, where should I go?’ And the answer’s always the same. Home. Always. I don’t care if you’re from Tupelo, Mississippi, because if you stay in one place your whole life, you own it. If you move around, you got a problem.”
Though if you’re from Chicago and you move around, you carry something unique with you. “What would you bring from San Francisco?” he asks. “Prettification? What would you bring from Boston? Intellectualism? What you bring from Chicago is the flame, the belief in modern architecture, in modernism. Modernism not meaning international style, Mies this and that, but in a sense of being modern and being of our time. Absolutely. Architecturally, historically, this is it. Right here.”
He says, “Being an architect in Chicago is like being a Muslim in Mecca. And to be born here–it’s mother’s milk. This is the place.”
In 1983 Tigerman made the short list for dean of Yale’s school of architecture. Yale’s president asked the candidates what one word would best describe them. “I waited for–typically–one-eighth of a second and I said ‘action,'” Tigerman recalls. “I didn’t get the job.” His friend Tom Beebe did. Tigerman later told Beebe he guessed that when Beebe was asked the same question he sat for 30 seconds, or a minute, “and then slowly uttered the word ‘contemplation.'” He recalls Beebe laughing.
Back in Chicago after his Yale years, Tigerman encountered Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Tigerman was drawn to Mies by “his work and his rigor, his intellect,” and by how this “self-made” German refugee went on to become “the man, the greatest architect of the 20th century.” Tigerman says Mies “reeked of will. He would will things into existence.” Tigerman remembers being alone in the great man’s office and seeing a book on Mies’s desk open to a picture of “Instant City,” an avant-garde proposal of Tigerman’s for huge mixed-use structures built over expressways. “I’m stunned. And at that moment Mies comes in in his wheelchair, and I am embarrassed to be there, and he says, ‘That is a very simple project’–meaning it’s good. Tears come to my eyes.”
Against those tears, consider Tigerman’s involvement with the Chicago Seven, a protest group of local architects. The 1975 show they mounted at New York’s Cooper Union came to Chicago in 1976 with its alternative take on “One Hundred Years of Chicago Architecture”–a major Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition that began with Sullivan and Wright and concluded with Mies and his descendants. The Chicago Seven offered a view of the future of Chicago architecture that looked beyond the Mies wannabes featured at the MCA. Some Miesians saw this as a slap at the master. And then there was what many considered the most explicit example of Tigerman’s thumbing his nose–his 1978 photomontage of Mies’s Crown Hall jutting out of Lake Michigan like the sinking Titanic.
“We talked once about Stanley Tigerman in Chicago, about the change in how to build apartments after Mies, and I showed the collage,” recalls Christiane Ern, a professor at Bauhaus-Universitat Weimar. “For me, this is the end of Mies and the beginning of postmodernism.” When she brought her students here to see Tigerman’s Burnham apartments, all were “very surprised to see something more Miesian in Chicago” done by the man who’d sunk Crown Hall.
“How do you know it’s going down?” Tigerman asks when told of her reaction. “It could be going up. It could be stable.”
Did he ever walk away from the master? “Absolutely not. I love Mies and I will till my dying day. Like the Muslims believe in Mecca, like the Christians believe in Jesus Christ, I still believe in Mies always.” He’s lived in Mies’s Lake Shore Drive apartment complex for 34 years. “You know why I live there?” he asks. “So I should always remember that I’m in the presence of greatness lest I get out of control in my own head. Then when I come home at night, that’s the real thing.”
What he hates, he explains, are the descendants. “I don’t like sycophants. I don’t like mediocrity and so forth. I don’t like people diminishing this discipline, ’cause I see architecture not as a profession but as a discipline, like a monastic pursuit. I’m not interested in guys who may see this as a way to make money.”
Tom Beebe thinks so highly of Tigerman as a teacher that he sent him his son to take Tigerman’s theory course at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It actually changed his life to see Stanley teach,” he says. He compares Tigerman to a coach. “He picks you up. Sometimes he knocks you down. You engage the whole personality. It’s like a cross between a love affair and a war.”
“The fact that I was a student of his tempers everything,” says Ken Schroeder, a former colleague at UIC. “It was a legacy. He was an excellent teacher.” But Schroeder remembers legendary behavior from their days at UIC. “There was a time when he was setting students’ drawings on fire, which is just unheard-of. He was just so outraged that they weren’t well-done.”
Tigerman admits it. “Boys–not just girls–I made cry. Of course that’s the way I was trained at Yale.” He was burned in effigy by UIC students. “One day, I look out the window and there I am in flames. It was great.”
Tigerman’s first teaching stint at UIC lasted from 1963 to 1971. He says he stood up in a faculty meeting and “told them to take their tenure and shove it up their ass. I quit, literally, because it was mediocre and it was not going to rub off on me. So I walked out.” Nine years later he was back as director of graduate studies. After losing out at Yale, he was made director of the UIC architecture school.
That’s when things really got ugly. “Stanley was at UIC and he was Stanley, and I think in his opinion a lot of the faculty needed pushing around. So he pushed them,” says Larry Booth. “And they nailed him.”
“I ran a taut, tough, autocratically run ship,” Tigerman says.
“He’s a control freak,” says Schroeder, who succeeded Tigerman as acting director. “His idea of academia was everybody would be an adjunct and you would have total control over everybody.”
“The faculty was all dreck,” says Tigerman, “and I treated them as if they were dreck ’cause they were dreck. They didn’t do anything. They didn’t win awards. They didn’t build buildings. They didn’t publish…and they weren’t very good teachers. So how are you supposed to treat them?” His solution was to bring in “a lot of great people, all of whom left when I left.”
Schroeder disputes Tigerman’s conduct, but not his assessment. “He did a lot of unethical things to faculty,” he says, like setting professors against each other instead of nurturing those with potential. “You don’t crash and burn everything.” But Schroeder allows, “Stanley was right in that a lot of those people are still there.”
The faculty rebelled. “They went to the dean and said, ‘Get him out of here,'” Tigerman remembers. In 1993, the dean of the college of architecture and the arts asked Tigerman for his resignation. Fire me, he replied. “So she did, which was fine,” he says. He headed to Yale to teach for a year, but he and Eva Maddox, whom he’d brought to UIC, were already making plans. “But for my getting fired,” he says, “I wouldn’t have founded Archeworks.”
A stack of books, which include Spinoza, Foucault, Aristotle, Kant, and Buber, creates a precarious tower on one end of Tigerman’s desk. He tells his students–and anyone else who will listen–about Rabbi Jose Faur of Israel, one of his heroes, who told him, “We can never communicate with God using language.”
“Amazing statement from a rabbi,” says Tigerman. “Jose Faur’s point was that you only can communicate with God through your deeds. And making something, putting it on earth, is for him a moral act, as it is for me. To make a bad building is very hard. To make a good building is that much harder.”
He tells his students Archeworks will teach them to initiate. “Architects tend to be responders,” he says. “Painters and artists tend to be initiators.”
In the wide-open space at 444 N. Wells where Tigerman and McCurry and 11 employees do business, the atmosphere is lively and sometimes downright raucous. Perched behind a drawing table, Tigerman presides. Brightly colored wooden screens surround a conference table but provide little privacy. Shelves display some dishware Tigerman designed, and there’s a Le Corbusier chaise he naps on. “I snore even though it’s an open office and people are working,” he says.
On this particular day, the king is holding court in his usual fashion. Tigerman bellows–“That’s his intercom,” explains a young employee–for office manager Taber Wayne. “Just a minute,” she says with some exasperation. Someone remarks, “You’re worse than an ex-boyfriend.”
His wife wanders over and reminds him that he has to be at Archeworks on a particular date to meet an important client he’d invited. He says an important White Sox game could prevent this. “You have to go,” McCurry tells him. “You cannot be a child about this.”
Tigerman doesn’t put McCurry on his list of top three influences. Most of those who know them would put her first. Just listen to him talk–the number of times he mentions her and the respect in his voice when he does. “This urban, cantankerous Jew marries a Lake Forest Episcopalian who went to Vassar, right?” he jokes. “So obviously there was some–psychologically speaking–need for legitimacy.”
Their marriage has outlasted his first two combined. “Margaret’s a very good person,” says Tigerman. “She’s a very good architect.” He seems charmed to figure prominently in her recent book about her work, Margaret McCurry: Constructing Twenty-five Short Stories, and especially delighted when McCurry “takes a shot at yours truly.” In the book Margaret says he snubbed her for years. But in 1975, just after the young SOM designer got back from a European vacation, she got a call. “He had broken up with his second wife and was putting together a little black book, not being one to be alone,” she says. “I was actually number two–the first being a Jewish woman.”
They began to see each other, developing a strong friendship first. They married in 1979 and became business partners in 1982. “We’re amazingly consistent in belief systems, on things that we like,” says McCurry. “We can buy artworks in two minutes and there’s never any disagreement over that. But I’m a night person, he’s a morning person. He rolls the toilet paper over the top. I roll it down the back.”
She says, “There’s a certain Napoleonic quality to Stanley which has to do with size, feistiness….I’m sometimes amazed at what he does. He should feel guilty but he doesn’t.” It’s not Jewish guilt she’s speaking of, she explains, simply “good old-fashioned guilt.” She is appalled by Tigerman’s indifference to littering, for example, and by his road rage.
She can also find herself frustrated by his business sense. “He is not a good politician at all,” McCurry says. “The newspapers call him up for a quote and he doesn’t think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t attack this person because they might give me a job.’ They say, ‘What do you think of that building?’ He’ll say, ‘I think it’s shit.'”
“When Stanley is fond of you, it’s like a light goes on over your head and you feel warm all over,” says Judy Neisser. “When Stanley doesn’t like you, it’s like the light goes off and you feel cold all over.”
Many friends can remember at least one terrible disagreement. Tigerman and Ben Weese fell out over the location of Chicago’s central public library. Tigerman said it belonged in Grant Park. Weese says he told him, “Stanley, you’ve been on every side of every issue,” and Tigerman didn’t speak to him for three years. They made up.
But enemies are harder to find than one might suspect. Even Dirk Lohan, Mies’s grandson, but an architect whom Tigerman has publicly and often criticized, says Tigerman “can be very charming” and allows that Chicago’s architectural scene “would be poorer without him.”
His friends would like Tigerman to have a bigger audience. Frank Gehry, who designed the new band shell in Millennium Park, has been so eager to see Tigerman get a major civic commission that he raised it with Mayor Daley. “He doesn’t pursue things,” says Gehry, who isn’t sure why not. “I just wish they’d give him something to do so he stands out there. He deserves it and he’s not getting any younger….He can do it. He’s a real architect.”
Tigerman understands that his wife and friends think he needs a big commission. But he says, “I’ve been very happy with what I get. I have no ambition,” and insists that he doesn’t feel slighted. “I’ve had great good fortune. I’ve been published a gazillion times. Look at the wall. We have seven national honor awards. Who else in the world has seven awards? In the history of the profession–max ten.”
McCurry says her husband is fatalistic about commissions. “He has always felt that one should never plan these things,” she explains, and adds, “he has always felt that a hero is someone who passes through adversity and doesn’t achieve heroism until after death.”
Tigerman’s drawn to Louis Sullivan–“’cause he died a bum, an alcoholic living in a large linen closet in a fleabag south-side hotel.” Destitution followed Sullivan’s pronouncement that “the Colombian Exposition would set the course of architecture back a full half century,” says Tigerman, who believes it did.
To Schroeder, Tigerman is a “Senn product who sort of rose to the occasion” but became “a tragic figure as well because his friends–Frank Gehry and Bob Stern–have gone on to fame.”
Tigerman doesn’t buy the argument that he’s too impolitic to be a superstar. “There’s another reason,” he says. “It’s because everybody else does signature work. I don’t….Bob Stern does Bob Stern. Michael Graves dips his buildings in white. Mies is Mies. Architects have always done signature buildings. People are afraid to hire Stanley Tigerman because you don’t know what you’ll get.”
Paradoxically, he’s someone who late in life declared he was remaking himself. Even if that means it’s too early to say how posterity will judge him, some peers weigh in. “His contribution is inspirational leadership and offering a critical position in a profession that isn’t very self-critical,” says Tom Beebe. Ben Weese adds, “It’s a polyglot contribution. Putting together the Tribune competition”–the 1980s ironic postmodernist reprise of the famous 1922 competition–“and the town houses, the Chicago Seven….He’s taught. He’s mentored. Archeworks is pretty damn impressive.” Tigerman is proof, says Weese, that “if you live long enough you get a third and forth or ninth chance.”
“He knows the limits of his talents. I think he knows who he is,” says Ross Miller, author of Here’s the Deal, a study of the history of Block 37, and someone who thinks Tigerman would like to be a star like Frank Gehry. But Miller wonders, “Is there anybody else in Chicago who has the range of Stanley?”
“My personal assessment of Stanley is that he is not one of the great architects that influences or has influenced or will influence generations,” says Dirk Lohan. “He is an important figure because he is the fly in the ointment, because he says things that we need to hear about and get upset about. But for a long time he was the clown. Is that enough?'”
Booth counters, “He’s had a marvelous life. He’s accomplished a lot. He’s helped a lot of people. He’s pissed people off. What more do you want?”
Two of Tigerman’s current projects are at the same stage–designed, approved, and looking for funding. One’s the national training center for the International Masonry Institute and the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Union. The other’s Skokie. “The Holocaust is a major project,” he says, “not because I’m Jewish…but because it’s a major part of the 20th century.” But he won’t call the museum and educational center the most important thing he’s doing. “I don’t think that way, period,” he says. “Generally, the project that I love the most is the next one, the new unfondled body, right?” He confesses that he stole this line from Frank Lloyd Wright.
Does he have any doubts that the museum will actually happen? “It’s like saying, ‘Do you plan to be around next year, Stanley?'” he snaps. “I don’t know. Yeah, I think it’s going to get built. What are the odds? Eight or ten to one. My teacher, Paul Rudolph of the Yale School, once said, in a Gertrude Stein-like way, ‘When it’s built, it’s built.’ And I understand that real well.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.