22 Questions for Stanley Tigerman

The salty 83-year-old architecture star on his loves (green design), his hates (the IBM building’s redo), and winning the AIA’s lifetime achievement award.

Photo: Courtesy of Tigerman McCurry Architects

On October 25, the famously outspoken architect—perhaps best known for designing the Illinois Holocaust Museum and for directing the school of architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago—will receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Institute of Architects. Editor in chief Elizabeth Fenner recently sat down with Tigerman, 83, in the light-filled River North offices of the architecture practice he still runs with his wife and partner, Margaret McCurry.

You’ll be given your lifetime achievement award at Navy Pier. What do you think of that location?

It’s nostalgic for me. After World War II, Navy Pier was used as a sort of junior college for [the University of Illinois at] Champaign Urbana. It was the predecessor of UIC. In ‘64, I was given a position to teach there, at that east end, which is where the architecture school was. And it was fabulous, because you’d walk the length of Navy Pier and you’d find students necking in the locker areas and stuff. It was a great kind of urban, gritty school. [But] lots of architects, and others, I suppose, don’t like what Navy Pier became.

Are you among them?

Well, yes and no. Sure, it could be a gazillion times better architecturally. On the other hand, it became a kind of populist, anti-elitist place that lots and lots of Chicagoans can afford to use, filled with McDonald’s and all the crap in the world. That’s nice, that it’s not for the picketing-in-mink type of lakefront liberals. So I’m kind of fond of it. Having said that, it’s the pits. An absolute, total pit. So it’s appropriate to give me a lifetime achievement award there [grins].

You’ve had your differences with the American Institute of Architects. So what did you think when you got the call?

I was stunned. First of all, it really brings immense credit on the AIA. I have been bad-mouthing them, giving them tsuris, for decades and decades.

About what?

What bothers me currently is their support of marketing and branding, which I see as the diminution of architecture. I still see architecture as the high road… as an ethical pursuit. So for them to turn the other cheek and give me a liftetime achievement award brings great credit to them. I’m very appreciative.

Why do you hate marketing?

After I came back [to Chicago] from Yale in ’61, opening a practice in ’62, I happened upon a copy of the Wall Street Journal. There was an interview with William Bernbach, the design director of the ad agency that promoted the Volkswagen Beetle. The interviewer asked, “Mr. Bernbach, how do you get work?” At first he didn’t understand. Then he said, “Look. If you get a project on the golf course, you can lose it on the golf course.”

That became my credo straightaway. I decided, Fuck it. If they want me, they’re going to come. And so I sat through many, many lean years. Never marketed, never did a goddamn thing. And slowly they started coming. I’ve been very fortunate.

How big is your firm?

Eight people. That’s my biggest success, keeping a small firm. We’re not payroll driven. We don’t have the temptation to follow the money. So we’re not in China. We’re building right here, close to home. That’s my end game. I love working in Chicago.

What buildings here do you love the most? You can include your own, if you like.

[Unhesitatingly:] All the buildings by [modernist master] Mies van der Rohe. Every single one.

How many are there?

In Chicago, 45. New York City has only one, the Seagram Building. We have forty fucking five…. [Also think about] the buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright, the First Chicago School, the Second Chicago School, Skidmore, blah blah blah [thumps the table]. I mean, this is the city of modernism. This is modern architecture, right here. It is the one thing that you can look to in Chicago as absolutely raw excellence. And it happened because the goddamn place burned down, and they had to rebuild it in two seconds.

You live in a Mies building, right?

I have lived in 910 Lake Shore Drive, which was built in ’55, since 1968. I live there as a reminder and as a challenge to me, in the details of the building and the finishes and so forth. He’s obviously a much more significant architect than I could ever hope to be. Mies and I worked together on a project in Montreal, and I’m a great admirer of his. Huge. He is my Abraham.

What was Mies like to work with?

Stoic. Funny, too. He had a great sense of humor, very ironic and low-key. My whole life, I was in awe of him. He treated me wonderfully well, for reasons that escape me. He was a really good man.

What do you think of the recent redo of the Mies-designed IBM tower by—

[Interrupts:] Hate it. It’s shit.

The lobby was renovated for the new Langham Hotel by Mies’s grandson, the architect Dirk Lohan.

It pays no respect at all to Mies. It takes no cues from the building. It’s all about plush living. Mies managed to take what he referred to as “almost nothing” and make something out of it, thus the phrase “less is more.” This is about more is more. It could have been done by [postmodern architect] Bob Venturi at the apogee of his life. Editor’s note: Lohan designed the lobby only, not the rest of the hotel.

I’m beginning to understand why you titled your 2011 autobiography Designing Bridges to Burn.

The name came from a comment of [my wife and architecture partner] Margaret’s. She told me, “One day the police are going to find you face down in an alley, and they’re going to have a hell of a time figuring out [who did it], because the list would be so long.” She said, “You’re at the stage of your life when you’re designing bridges to burn.”

I have an early copy of the book where they [mistakenly] left a letter out on the cover. It’s called Designing Brides to Burn. [Laughing:] Of course, I’ve been married three times.

Why do you piss off so many people?

Because I tell the truth… [For example], Margaret was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard, so we have a conduit to Harvard, and occasionally they send kids [to work here]. I hate those kids because they’re all very snooty. And they don’t like to build models. We had one here one summer, and he built the shittiest models in the world. And I said, “Kid [slams table], you’re going to do this fucking model again until you get it right.” And he quit. I called the then-chair at Harvard, and said, “Do me a favor. Send me no more. I don’t want these assholes.”

Who have you pissed off the most?

The list is huge! I never grew up understanding what “observing the proprieties” really meant. I always thought that you just told the truth, and things would be OK.

The architects of your generation who are better known than you worldwide, such as your friend Frank Gehry—some say it’s because their style is more consistent. True?

Well, it’s true. I love Frank, and I love his work. He’s an absolute genius. But there is a self-similarity. Not identical, but self-similar. Most architects—Richard Meier does Richard Meier. Peter Eisenman does Peter Eisenman. I never felt the need to develop a style. It wasn’t interesting to me. I thought it was more interesting to work within the context of, Everything is a tabula rasa. A fresh slate every time. It’s also very hard, because you don’t always have ideas. Like writer’s block, you can get architecture block. And that’s frightening.

If people want to see the buildings that best show what Stanley Tigerman is all about, where would you send them?

To this office. So they could see the process, what the next thing is.

What is the next thing?

We’re working on several things. Pacific Garden Mission [a homeless shelter in the South Loop] has come back; they need more space. So I’m working on something with them. I’m working on a bit of an addition for the Holocaust Museum [in Skokie]. I’m doing a fabulous little 900-square-foot weekend house. And I’m working on another house with Margaret, in Moline on the Fox River. That’s exciting. We’re busy, knock on wood.

Are you doing only green design at this point?

We try to. I can’t say that we do as much as we should, but we try. The Holocaust museum is [certified] LEED gold. The Pacific Garden Mission is LEED silver. It’s expensive, but it’s ethically correct. You’re a human being on the planet, and you need to be responsible.

How did you get interested in sustainable architecture?

By dumb, blind accident, when I flunked out of MIT, the then dean of architecture got me a job as an apprentice with [modernist architect] George Fred Keck in Chicago. I didn’t realize what the hell he was doing, but Keck became the first passive solar architect in the United States. He was doing dead-flat roofs to carry water to cool the houses; they were always oriented north-south with overhangs on the south. So in the winter, when the sun was low, the sun came in; in the summer, the overhang kept it out. But when air conditioning came in, and electricity, [most architects stopped bothering]. We’ve done our share of the ruination of the planet.

We, meaning architects?

Everybody. Our carbon footprint is a disaster. And then we [in the United States] become do-gooders and say to China and India, You can’t pollute the planet anymore. And they say, but you did already! Now you’re telling us we can’t do it? It’s a complex argument, for sure.

You’ve been vocal about the need to pass the baton to the next generation. Who are the most exciting young architects in Chicago right now?

The next generation behind me are people like John Ronan, who did the Poetry Foundation headquarters [on the Near North Side], which is absolutely spectacular. Jeanne Gang, of course. In the generation after them, there’s a young guy named Jimenez Lai at UIC and another named Iker Gil, who teaches at Archeworks [a multidisciplinary design school in River North that Tigerman co-founded in 1994]. They’ve stepped forward both in their drawings and their ideas.

Update: On October 29, this interview was corrected to reflect the fact that Dirk Lohan did not design the entire Langham Hotel.

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