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Tigerman on the loose

Chicago architecture’s chief bad boy and critic takes on his own contentious career


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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 invented - STANLEY TIGERMAN
  • Stanley Tigerman
  • A satirical architectural sketch, or "architoon," which Tigerman invented

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 invented - STANLEY TIGERMAN
  • Stanley Tigerman
  • A satirical architectural sketch, or "architoon," which Tigerman invented

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.


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