Inside My Design Mind: Salt-of-the-Earth Lessons From Architect Stanley Tigerman

by Jeff Link
- Jul 20 2016 - 6 min read
Stanley Tigerman
Stanley Tigerman. Courtesy Tigerman McCurry Architects.

It’s no secret Stanley Tigerman has made a few enemies in his career.

Chicago’s pugnacious 85-year-old architecture star and elder statesman, who received a lifetime achievement award from the American Institute of Architects in October, is known perhaps as much for his brand of gloves-off honesty as his buildings. In a 2013 interview with Chicago magazine, he summed up the redesign of the city’s Ludwig Mies van der Rohe–designed IBM tower as “shit.”

But there’s a socially minded, nurturing side of Tigerman—designer of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Pacific Garden Mission—that is sometimes lost in the offhand bravado of his public-facing comments. As a member of the Chicago Seven (which protested the predominance of modernism) and a provocateur who has organized seminal forums about architecture’s future, Tigerman is more than just tough talk.

Stanley Tigerman Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie, Illinois, 2009. Courtesy Tigerman McCurry Architects.

Here, the architect, educator, and curator reveals a generous and expansive mind, praising the uncompromising will of his role model Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and explaining where he finds and nourishes inspiration. He speaks fondly of architecture’s next generation, to whom he offers this advice: Go slow. Don’t copy. Stand firm. Work hard.

You’re deeply tied to Chicago’s architectural traditions and history. Your practice is in River North, you directed the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture, and you even call Chicago the city of modernism. How does that Chicago tradition inspire you?
I was born in Chicago, and being an architect here is like being a Muslim in Mecca—you are right at the source of the flame. Chicago is the most modern city on the planet, acknowledged to be after it burned down in 1871. It’s challenging to go up against all those great names, my predecessors.

Stanley Tigerman Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall sinking into Lake Michigan
Stanley Tigerman’s conceptual 1978 image of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall sinking into Lake Michigan. Courtesy Tigerman McCurry Architects.

But Chicago is in good hands. The youngest generation practicing architecture has so much talent, including theoretical understanding. And it continues to be challenging and exciting to me. I live in one of Mies’ buildings [910 Lake Shore Drive], and that was done very consciously by me because I wanted to live in response to that excellence, the level to which one needs to aspire.

Did Mies have a strong influence on your work?
No. There’s very little physical bearing on what Mies did and what I did. What there is, is the challenge of his thinking, his way of working. When he was forced to leave Germany in 1938, he had a library of 3,000 books. The SS only allowed him to take 30. The 30 he took are all in the rare books library at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and they are incredible to look at: the writings of Saint Augustine, Saint Thomas Aquinas. He was a serious reader.

Stanley Tigerman Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, 1982. Courtesy Tigerman McCurry Architects.

Mies didn’t say anything casually. He meant what he said, and he said very little. I knew him very well; he was very impressive. It’s a challenge because he wasn’t loose with his comments—about life, about work and architecture. He took things very slowly; very deliberately; and never in any way, shape, or form off the cuff. That, to me, has always instilled a kind of role model and paradigm. It’s not my nature. I make a lot of mistakes, but I always go back and try to correct them. Like how a building turns a corner: Sometimes I think about it in a very slipshod way; I think about it, and I can’t do this or that, so I redesign it again and again and again. Architecture is like editing is for a writer: honing it, getting it a little better and a little better.

Can you point to a specific project that shows the importance of editing in your work?
No. But let me approach it this way: Once, we were working on a project in Mies’ office in Montreal. I was talking to someone, and Mies was nearby at one of the drafting boards. There was a young man asking him questions about how he wanted a certain thing to look. Mies told him he would think about it. Three weeks later, I was in the same office; Mies was there with the same young man, and he showed him how to do it. He saw it through, and that stayed in my mind: that the right decision took him three weeks. That’s important to my way of thinking.

You run your architectural practice, Tigerman McCurry Architects, with your wife and partner, Margaret McCurry. Is that a challenge?
Yes. It’s difficult. We argue all the time. But Margaret is a very good architect. I listen to her. I didn’t always, but I do now. My influence on Margaret has made her a bit quicker. Her influence on me has slowed me down. Margaret has impeccable taste.

Stanley Tigerman Instant City project
Instant City project model, 1966. Courtesy Tigerman McCurry Architects.

Your 2011 autobiography is called Designing Bridges to Burn. Why, as a designer, do you want to burn bridges?
Because an unfortunate part of my M.O. is putting my foot in my mouth more often than necessary. I tend to say things without thinking. That’s why Mies was such a role model to me. He never said boo without thinking it through. The title came from a phrase Margaret used one day after we were having some argument. “When they find you face down in an alley, it will take the police a very long time to find the killer because the list of suspects will be very long,” she said. “You’re at the stage of your life where you’re designing bridges to burn.” I’m not exactly user-friendly, which I feel badly about because that’s not the way I see myself.

In an interview with Chicago magazine, you said you prefer to begin “with a blank slate every time, rather than returning to a particular style.” Where do your ideas originate?
They originate in the idiosyncrasies because they are all different—different aspirations, ambitions, and conceits. And where my own head is at, at the particular moment. From the particular to the general, from a site to the work and back again. People say, “What’s your favorite project?” The next one, of course.

What happens when you get architect’s block?
We’re working on a number of things right now. I just sat down on a detail on a garden in Michigan, working out how to turn a corner. I told the client what I was thinking, and it helped with another project. Writer’s block, or architect’s block, is not a big deal. You just go and do something else, and it will come back to you. You need to leave the mind.

Redshift’s “Inside My Design Mind” series explores the personal insights from leading designers across industries.

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