by John JervisMar 27, 2020
Stanley Tigerman was a legendary Chicago architect known for his rebellious and ironic projects, often explicit provocations. He rose to prominence in the mid-1970s when he boldly undermined the then undisputed authority of the mid-20th century modernism, particularly Miesian universal and much copied modernism, by playing the crucial role in forming the first-generation post-modern group of architects in Chicago that went into history books under the name Chicago Seven. The architect passed away this summer at the age of 88.
Tigerman designed many memorable projects, over 200 were realised. He wrote numerous texts and was an outstanding teacher that included being the director of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Architecture from 1985 to 1993. Before opening his latest practice - Tigerman McCurry - with his third wife Margaret McCurry in 1986, he served as the American correspondent of L'architecture d'aujourd'hui and worked a decade in Bangladesh. In 1994, with designer Eva Maddox, he co-founded Archeworks, an independent architecture school with focus on progressive socially oriented design.
But arguably none of those undertakings can compete in their significance with the architect’s 1978 minimalist collage he called The Titanic. In it, Tigerman tilted Mies van der Rohe’s most iconic and celebrated building, the Crown Hall, the heart and brain of his Illinois Institute of Technology campus where modernist architecture was preached. Tigerman’s unequivocal photomontage depicts Mies’ temple of modernism, as it being unceremoniously torpedoed and sent straight to the bottom of Lake Michigan. While it was Robert Venturi’s much earlier book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) that conceptualised and liberated architecture from the straitjacket of Miesian modernism by contaminating it with diversity and pluralism that signalled the arrival of post-modern era in architecture, it was Tigerman’s Titanic that gave this paradigm shift the appropriate visual manifestation. In his work, the architect explored themes such as utopia, allegory, humour, symbolism, eclecticism, metaphors, and most of all - he was quixotically fighting the status quo.
The following is an excerpt from my previously unpublished interview with Stanley Tigerman that accrued at his now closed Chicago studio in April 2012.
Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): On your website it says that your office is committed to the creation of a contemporary and authentically American architecture that is characteristic of its own time and place. Could you explain what you mean by authentically American?
Stanley Tigerman (ST): America is a hybrid. This is not our home, unless you are an American Indian. For example, you are from Ukraine and my grandparents came from Hungary. Nobody is from here. So, you are automatically alienated here. I wrote a book called The Architecture of Exile on this subject.
VB: Wouldn’t you say there is such a thing as distinctly American architecture that originated here?
ST: There are no American architectural symbols; the technology – yes, of course, that’s what Mies understood so well. But for symbolism, we have to look elsewhere. For example, post-modernism was an American movement because we are hybrid and post-modernism is a hybrid movement. It is not authentic.
VB: At Yale, you studied under Paul Rudolph. You once said how fabulous a teacher he was. What was it that you learned from him the most?
ST: He was very tough; you have no idea... During the time I studied with him, one student committed suicide and many ended up on psychiatrist couches. He was brutal. But he was a great teacher and he demanded no more from his students than from himself. Rudolph was a great role model. When he told me to do something it was what he did himself. In one week, he demanded sections, perspectives, models in big scale, small scale… I worked for him, often until early morning. But I saw him in action, and he worked just as hard or harder, than any of us.
Architecture is a very difficult pursuit. You have to be strong to get something built. We had a meeting today here and everybody was trying to put an obstacle in front of me. Why? Because I am trying to do something that was never done before. And there is always a resistance to that, inertia. Try to build even a little cottage in a virgin forest and all the environmentalists will go against you because you are doing something that was not intended to be there. So, making a new building requires a great strength, immense will, fortitude, belief. Architecture is for tough guys. Everything stands in the way – clients, developers, engineers… John Hejduk said it all, “The closer the finished building to the original drawing the better the building is.” But it is very hard to do that because buildings get attacked and often lose their poetic content.
VB: In your own work what have you done that was never done before?
ST: Ironic buildings, buildings with a sense of irony.
VB: Why do you think it is important for architecture to possess this quality?
ST: Well, one of the things you try to do as an architect is to bring pleasure to people. A part of pleasure is humour. And if I have done anything, that is probably what I will be remembered for.
VB: What is the most successful project that you have done so far that conveys this notion?
ST: The next one.
VB: No, seriously, looking back, could you pick one project and tell me what’s ironic about it?
ST: Hejduk wrote in my book that in order to be a good architect you have to do at least one building that has an aura. His words, not mine. And he felt that I have done several buildings that have that quality: The Black Barn at Frog Hollow and my own house in Lakeside, Michigan are two of those buildings. There is a certain quality in my work that John understood.
VB: What were his exact words?
ST: I don’t keep them memorised… Here, why don’t you read it from my book The Architecture of Exile?
VB: “I am drawn to architecture that gives off an aura. An aura is a difficult atmosphere to define, but as rarely as it occurs, we know when we are in the presence of architecture, drawing or person that gives off a sense… Stanley Tigerman is an American architect not in exile but very much at home. The Black Barn at Frog Hollow, with its white swans floating upon the murky catfish pond as organ sounds emanate from the barn, emits an aura of antiquity and of a stillness across an American landscape… To be named an architect at least one of your works must have an aura. Stanley is an architect.”
ST: These words are very precious to me.
VB: You said: “An architect moulds his epoch, rather than reflects it.” What did you mean by that?
ST: Mies said, "Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space." On the other hand, an architect often tells the client or society: “Come this way – I’ll show you a better way!” So sometimes architecture mirrors the society and sometimes it leads the way. So, one is torn between the two all the time.
VB: You were a founding member of the post-modernist group, the Chicago Seven, which started in 1976. What were its main intentions and what is the legacy of the group?
ST: You have to imagine that time. Mies died in 1969. The Miesians, his followers, took over Chicago and most modern buildings were built as Mies would do them – with the expression of structural grid. There was no room for anything else. There was no room for people like me or anyone who was not a follower of Mies. So, we did a book on Chicago architects and a show, which debuted at Cooper Union, thanks to Hejduk. Then it was shown in Chicago. And unlike New York Five or Grays, we were not cohesive. We were working in all possible directions. We were not even good friends. But we wanted to open the city up because it wasn’t open to us. We wanted to open it to the next generation.
VB: In the 1980 Venice Biennale you took part in The Presence of the Past exhibit curated by Paolo Portoghesi. What was that like?
ST: The disaster. There is an old proverb – he who walks in another’s footprints leaves no mark. What happened there was a re-emergence of the past, namely the classicism. My purpose was to experiment with the hybridisation of architecture, which is so fit for America. But movement toward classicism – that’s a disaster, because nothing new is created and that is a problem. In my own project, I was theatrical. It was a façade with a drapery behind, which was my work – I was then working at the American Academy in Rome. The work was about irony. It was the theatre of the absurd.
VB: There was a split within post-modernism with one group pursuing a more literal, classical model and the other – being more adventurous and inventive. Yet, both groups based their work on historical models. Today do you still view your work as post-modernist?
ST: I am an American architect. I am a hybrid. And I always saw architecture as hybrid art. I never saw it as either modernist, classical, de-constructivist, or post-modernist.