Why architect Stanley Tigerman designs with death in mind

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Stanley Tigerman has been an outspoken force in Chicago’s architectural scene for more than 50 years. The Chicago native has designed over 175 built works, including Skokie’s Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, the light-filled Pacific Garden Mission homeless shelter on the Near West Side and the modernist Boardwalk Apartments high-rise in Uptown.

Much to his surprise, Tigerman is receiving the top honor from the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy for them. To swallow hard and say, ‘OK, let’s give this son of a bitch a lifetime achievement award.’ And I’m very appreciative of it,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop challenging them, for sure.” Tigerman, who turns 83 on Friday, will be honored at AIA’s DesigNight in October.

What’s changed since you began your firm in 1962?

The most significant thing that has happened to me has been growing over some 50-odd years [in] consciousness, awareness, about the importance of ethics. I wish I could say that has been the most significant thing for society. But I can’t say that. The most significant thing for architecture, but not for me particularly, is technology has changed.

There has been, in an ethical sense, a growing consciousness about sustainability and [architects’] place on the planet. They do it because of pressure, they do it because they think it’s the right thing to do. They do it because it’s shown to be, over the long haul, economically believable. I’d like to think that the human animal is interested in sustaining life for its offspring. They want to leave a better planet for their children and grandchildren.

Has technology made you a better architect?

I’m an old man. My wife and I are partners. And neither of us are literate in terms of AutoCAD, doing buildings on the computer. But the rest of the office is. You can’t have an office that isn’t computer literate. We never have to outsource tech support — the kids can do it themselves. Even though we’re not computer literate, we still draw. And we give a drawing to one of the kids, they put it on the computer, the drawing comes back perfect and we mark it up, and we give it back and it’s a back-and-forth thing. Until it gets built.

Has the way you’ve run the business part of your firm changed?

In a way, it hasn’t. If I’ve had any success at all, it’s been keeping a small office. I never had great ambitions to do every building, to have a giant office. The way architects do business today is a problem. Because they have marketing directors. They’re interested in this [rubs fingers together] — they’re interested in money. They have to make a payroll.

Marketing and branding are the undoing of architecture. They’re the commodification of architecture. I always thought it was an ethical pursuit and an aesthetic pursuit. I still do.

We don’t go after buildings. If it walks in the door, we got it. I never thought about it as a business. I mean, yes, we’re in business — we have to pay the rent, we have to pay a salary, we’re in business. Make no mistake. But that’s not on the frontal lobes of my head. I’m not interested in that.

Do you think larger firms aren’t able to have the same commitment to ethics?

Ever see the movie “Big”? With Tom Hanks? He’s a little kid but he somehow gets to be older. Becoming big is a problem.

[Small firms are] more flexible, you’re more malleable. And malleability, flexibility, is really important as you age. You have to be flexible to be able to shift with the times. And not be fixed in a certain particular way.

What about mistakes? Any buildings you would have done differently?

Do you know what Wabi-sabi is? It’s a Buddhist philosophy that says nothing is finished, nothing is perfect, nothing is ideal. Everything is in the process of becoming. In the West, we’ve been trained to complete things to make them perfect. But we’re going to die. The world is imperfect, we’re imperfect. Why are we concerned with making things so beautifully perfect if they can’t be?

Somebody once said that buildings, like bodies, begin to die at birth. Because of gravity. I’m now 5-foot-4. I used to be 5-7. You shrink. The cartilage between the bones in your spine — because of gravity, the pull toward the Earth — they shrink. Buildings do, too. They move inexorably.

It’s beyond making it work. It’s really about accepting that things are flawed. How you design things is the understanding that materials fail. The watch runs out, the battery runs out. Things are not there forever.

Does anything about the new generation of architects concern you?

They’re much more equipped today. They’re much more sophisticated than when I was in my 20s and 30s. For sure. So I’m optimistic about the next generation.

Has your age changed the way you work?

In a way, I’m smarter. And I’m trying to put that to use in my work. And in my writing. And in my drawings. But the challenge is — I was always, as a young man, known for my spontaneity. Young people are quick. They do things pronto. Old people become more sophisticated. The idea is to retain your spontaneity. And to resist your intelligence [when you think], this is the right way to do it.

What does winning AIA Chicago’s lifetime achievement award mean for you?

Make no mistake; I’m thrilled by a lifetime achievement award. Particularly coming from the AIA, which I’ve badmouthed over the years. So that they voted to give this to me, I do not take that lightly. I’m very appreciative. I’ve done some damage to them and I’m aware of it. I’ve challenged them: Why aren’t they more ethically inclined? Why do they support marketing and branding and all those things? So that they then turn around in a way and turn the other cheek and give me this award does not go unnoticed by me. And I’m thrilled by it.

While I’m appreciative of this lifetime achievement award, life goes on. What is the achievement today? And what will it be tomorrow? And how can you be better?

What’s next?

I don’t have a plan. But I never had a game plan. I played chess the same way — one move at a time. I don’t think ahead. So I’m not a very good chess player. But I’m still around, so I must have been doing something right. I can’t figure out what that was. I never had a plan. I still don’t have a plan. As I’ve grown older, I’m reading more, I’m thinking deeper thoughts. People always ask, what is the best building you’ve ever done? And the answer is, the next one. I’m not interested in clipping coupons on past encounters. That’s in the past.

The key, when you get older, is to retain your liberal being. Think ahead. Be optimistic. Do not be cynical. Don’t retire, play golf and all that bullshit. I mean, do you ever hang around old people? The reason I’m at work, I’m at the office — I can’t stand being around them. They talk about golf, their travels, they’re awful. They’re ridiculous people. When the fact is, they’re loaded with knowledge. And morality. Why aren’t they doing something for others?

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