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Building a Place to Remember

Stanley Tigerman on his design for the Illinois Holocaust Museum

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In the opening paragraphs of a long profile that ran in the Reader five years ago this week, architect Stanley Tigerman told journalist Mara Tapp how devoted he was to a project he'd started work on a few years earlier—a museum and education center for the Skokie-based Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois. "I want to build this, I want to build it bad," said Tigerman, then 73. "I have never built for my own kind. I've never done a synagogue, a temple. Nothing." He added that he'd told foundation officials "it would be the project not only of a lifetime, but it would be the project I've been waiting for."

But last week, when officials of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center hosted a "sneak peek" media tour of the 65,000-square-foot facility, finally nearing completion, and announced the official opening date of April 19, 2009, Tigerman was nowhere to be seen.

It was a chilly morning. Clutching notebooks and video cams and wearing obligatory hard hats (though work in the immediate area had been halted), media types huddled outside the center, which is just west of the Old Orchard shopping mall, next to the massive glass towers of the Optima condominium complex. Years ago, after protests from prospective neighbors in a more residential location, the project was brought here, to land purchased from the Cook County Forest Preserve that butts up against the Edens Expressway. Cars whooshed and trucks thundered past as officials took turns at the microphone that had been set up in front of the complex, a pair of conjoined buildings—one dark and one light, fronted by two steel mesh cylinders that might at first glance suggest smokestacks.

Executive director Richard Hirschhaut said this will be the largest center of its kind in the midwest, the first in the world to combine a permanent Holocaust exhibition, art gallery, youth education center, classrooms, auditorium, and temporary exhibition space in one freestanding structure. And, he remarked, it's "likely to be the last major museum to be built in cooperation with Holocaust survivors." Capital campaign chair J.B. Pritzker said more than $35 million had been raised toward the $45 million goal and noted that this "world-class" museum will host international lecturers and artists and teach about the "dangers of prejudice and hate" and about genocide wherever it occurs. Board president Sam Harris looked back 30 years to the founding of the center, in a Main Street storefront, by Holocaust survivors responding to a threatened neo-Nazi march through Skokie. "We know now our stories will not be lost when we pass on," he said. Someone expressed the hope that President Obama would make it to the opening. Then everyone followed Michael Berenbaum, the "interior and exhibit co-designer" and former project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, into the dark building.

Pausing in a long, windowless, cinder-block exhibition-hall-to-be, Berenbaum explained that the display will be narrative-driven and "linear," taking visitors through the story of the Holocaust and exploring the question of "how a democratic government can move to a totalitarian government." They'll see depictions of Kristallnacht and a ghetto, and enter a real German railroad car of the period. After that come liberation, a displaced persons camp, resettlement, and finally the testimony of survivors—which Berenbaum said will confer on visitors the responsibility of becoming a "witness of the witnesses."

The second of the two buildings—the airy one—includes a sun-drenched memorial hall, an art gallery, and a library housing video testimony from 2,000 midwest Holocaust survivors, taped by Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, which Berenbaum also formerly headed. A separate children's area will be housed on the lower level, where primary school students—too young for the grim story upstairs unless accompanied by parents—will grapple with more familiar forms of brutality, like playground bullying.

Holocaust museums tread a fine line between education and Disneyfication. The tour left me thinking we'll have to wait until these installations are up next spring to see how the museum handles that challenge. What's visible now—the dark and the light buildings, the odd angle between them, and the two skeletal sentinels out front—isn't Berenbaum's territory—it's Tigerman's. At the tour's end I asked Hirschhaut why the architect wasn't there. He said the contractors still had some cleaning up to do, and Tigerman would take the critics through sometime later. But this was the only hard-hat tour I'd ever been on where the architect was missing. When I got back to my office, I dialed him up to ask why.

"I wasn't invited," Tigerman said.

Why not?

He declined comment, offering only that after eight years of working on a building "you lose some cachet."

He did, however, talk about the project, which he says really hasn't changed since he interviewed for the commission. He took "a little free-hand sketch" to that interview, he said, and "I've built the sketch. Developed dramatically, modified somewhat, but not in any way that is detrimental. I'd been waiting to do this building all my life."

A book Tigerman published in 1988, The Architecture of Exile, suggests that's no exaggeration. It's a gorgeously illustrated, densely written exploration of the architecture of the Old Testament, notably Solomon's Temple, with its two prominent pillars out front. Tigerman says that over time the Jews have had two orientations for their sacred buildings. Solomon's Temple, and many that came after it, faced due east because, like all agricultural people, early Jews looked toward the sun for sustenance. Later, "after several diaspora... the Jews began to orient their sacred buildings toward the West Wall"—the remnant of the Second Temple. Tigerman used both orientations for the IHMEC, which explains the odd relationship between the structures: the dark building is turned southeast toward Jerusalem; its pale sibling faces the rising sun.

When you enter the complex, Tigerman says, "you descend into the darkness of the Holocaust," pass through the cone-shaped hinge that connects the two buildings (where there's an exploration of Nazi deception on the lower level and a Hall of Remembrance above), and then rise to the light, exiting from a different place—in body and mind—than you started from. The steel mesh pillars outside are "frameworks" for the two columns of Solomon's Temple. "They're precisely the size, spacing, and height of those columns, but they're evacuated," he says. The building is "loaded with symbolism, because the Third Reich was intent not just on killing the Jews but on getting rid of the culture as well. The entire Jewish civilization. So the two buildings and the columns are a representation of the history of the Jews."

Tigerman says he's "very happy" with the building, though he no longer thinks of it as his project of a lifetime. "It's ultimately their building, not mine," he says, "and they do as they see fit. And that's fine." He also says it won't be complete by April 19, though it might be close. As for a tour conducted by him? "I don't know that that's going to happen."v

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