No Compromise: An Interview with Stanley Tigerman


The following interview with Stanley Tigerman was originally published in Fresh Meat Issue VI: ACCOUNTABILITY (Summer 2013). The interview was conducted by Brandon Biederman, Julia Di Castri, Eric Hoffman, and Chelsea Ross in December 2012. Stanley Tigerman passed away on June 3, 2019, at 88. Thanks to Fresh Meat for allowing MAS Context to republish the interview.


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An early sketch of the Anti-Cruelty Society building, a project actualized in 1981. © Drawing courtesy of Stanley Tigerman.

Really, Stanley Tigerman needs no introduction. Architect, author, educator, at 82, Tigerman has the audacity to be not only still working, but still relevant.

Inspired by the graphically potent work in his show Ceci n’est pas une rêverie: The Architecture of Stanley Tigerman at the Graham Foundation last Spring, FM sat down with Tigerman at his River North office last December. While we planned to talk about the role of representation in architecture, Tigerman steered our conversation to ethics, aura, and wabi-sabi—the Japanese concept of embracing imperfection.

A progenitor of architecture’s graphic project, Tigerman still draws three hours a day, filling up sketchbooks with otherworldly streams of visual consciousness (a selection of which are exclusively published here). For Tigerman, drawing is not merely a communicative or technical device, but instead an autonomous practice that is integral to the translation of architecture from idea to material form. It is a vehicle for what he terms “aura.” In conjunction with his pursuit of aura, is Tigerman’s mandate for an architectural practice instilled with ethics. In addition to writing a forthcoming book on the subject, Tigerman is also developing a program and pedagogy of architectural ethics at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School. As former director of UIC’s School of Architecture and co-founder of Archeworks, Tigerman sustains a profound impact on the discipline, especially here in Chicago. FM is pleased to share this exclusive interview with one of the most influential architects of our time.

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Stanley Tigerman, 2012. © Chelsea Ross.

FM: It was great to see your exhibition at the Graham Foundation last spring. Your use of drawings to convey the larger ideas behind a project sparked conversations among those of us at FM about the role of representation in architecture. Do you consider drawing a more pure form of architecture?

ST: Well, it’s the original form. The original form meaning the idea of it in your head, before putting it on paper: imminence. I’m actually writing a book about this, about ineffability in architecture as the purest form. When an architect embarks on making a drawing that is not about a building, it suggests that something more is yet to come.

FM: So the original form is this sort of intangible, amorphous idea…

ST: It is not about a raw idea, but about an Other, which is a building. An Other is not just an animate Other, it can be inanimate as well.

This comes up in the book I am writing: do we really respect the Other?

FM: So how does this idea of respecting the Other play out in architecture?

ST: Do you respect architecture? By that I mean built, actualized stuff. It starts with drawing—you have to respect drawing. This goes back to the Graham Foundation; I received comments to the effect of, “I can’t believe you drew in an age of computers.” Yes, I drew. I still draw.

FM: So for you, drawing is a way to actively respect architecture?

ST: Yes it is. I am a dinosaur; I come from another time. George Fred Keck was my first employer. I worked there for a year after I flunked out of MIT, and he insisted that being casual about drawing led to being careless about the building. For him, neither behavior was minimally acceptable. If you compromised a drawing that produced something less than what he would consider ideal, then by extension you would probably compromise a building with such behavior.

FM: That is reminiscent of Buddhist philosophy—the idea of being intentional and deliberate in all that you do.

ST: You’re right. To be at one with your work. Near the end of his life, Le Corbusier said how lucky he was that he could paint three hours a day, write three hours a day, and do architecture three hours a day. Now, in my declining years, that’s what I do. I write three hours a day, I do architecture three hours a day, and I draw three hours a day. I am a drawing motherfucker; it’s what I learned to do.

FM: It seems that drawing is in your DNA. It is interesting to see an extension of your graphic project re-emerging at UIC and in practices that are gaining recognition and influence. Jimenez Lai, for example.

ST: The challenge of architecture has always been to make what is useful into art, and to try and avoid the traps that actualization continuously sets up. Thus, the predominance of drawings during my generation, three generations ago.

You are two generations removed from me; I am 82 years old. For your generation the problem is to embed—I don’t know how else to say it—the poetry, the ineffable, the aura into the computer. If you don’t do that, then it’s just instrumentation. And if you’re not interested in aura, then get the fuck out of architecture because that’s what architecture is all about. It’s about ethics and aura. That’s it.

FM: Do you think that’s possible? Do you think the computer has potential to communicate aura?

ST: Because I’m an architect, I’m an optimist. To build is to build in the face of inertia, in the face of things that push back at you: codes, committees, open lands. To build a crappy building is really hard; to build a good one is just a little harder. The tendency is to just be agreeable to everything working against you. A working definition of good architecture is the ability to say no and still get it built. That sounds contradictory, but it’s really important to say no.

As Bruce Graham once said to me, “Architecture is not for pussy cats.” And it’s not. It’s for strong people. If you’re going to be an actual architect, you actually have to make things, and make them to the best of your ability. The best building you can do will be the toughest because everything will stand in your way.

FM: Is architecture inherently an act of resistance?

ST: It’s a combination of resistance and compromise. On the one hand, you are inevitably at the behest of your client. You have to pay rent every month and the money has to come from somewhere. On the other hand, I also build for myself. I have an agenda. If a client walks in today, my agenda is different than it was six months or three years ago. Whatever my agenda is, that’s the way I will design. Of course, that is while also accommodating the clients and their idiosyncrasies, and so forth.

FM: But you still have to keep pushing that original idea…

ST: Right. You not only have hard clients, but also differing agendas, so I always invent a client. When I did the library for the blind, I worked for the American Federation for the Blind. I was interested in working for blind people, not for the rich people who had been assigned to the board. When I did the Holocaust Museum, I worked for Holocaust survivors, not American Jewish descendants. When I worked for the Pacific Garden Mission run by a board of Evangelical ministers, the homeless were my clients, not the ministers.

FM: Is that a way to impregnate a project with aura?

ST: Well, you have a better shot if you work for real people, the people for whom the building is intended.

The only space I’ve ever done that’s worth a shit is that space—the Cleave—between the two buildings of the Holocaust Museum, where the German boxcar is. That’s a real space. That has, for me, aura, and I’ve never been able to do another space like that.

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Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. © David Siede. Courtesy of Stanley Tigerman.

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Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. © David Siede. Courtesy of Stanley Tigerman.

FM: Going back to what you were saying a moment ago about inventing the client—that sounds like a subversive way of circumventing the market while still prioritizing your own agenda.

ST: Ultimately, you’re either going to respond to the market or you and your client are going to create a market of your own. That’s what Herb Greenwald did. How many buildings by Mies are there in Chicago? Forty-five? Think about it. Greenwald created a market for floor-to-ceiling windows that didn’t exist before, and then everybody wanted it.

FM: How do you reconcile your own agenda with your client’s needs and with the market?

ST: Maybe reconcile is a better way of putting it. Reconciling my agenda with those of an Other. Architecture is collaborative at every step of the way, but I do design for myself. When I wake up in the morning, I have to look myself in the mirror. That’s who I design for.

Levinas writes that he considers himself a monad. A monad is an irreducible unit. Nobody else is in your shell. Who really knows you? I mean, at the end of the day your parents (you think), your siblings (maybe), your significant other (possibly), but nobody knows you like you do. Nobody knows your aspirations more closely than you do. You have to resolve or negotiate all those conditions that make up who you are, with the Other, with others, with many others. Respect is a part of it. Respect for people, but also respect for the inanimate, for buildings. Do you respect a building? And that gets back to the question, do you respect a drawing?

FM: The drawing being the thing that mediates between the idea and built reality?

ST: Right.

FM: It also freezes it in a way. It seems like the idea and the drawing are in a continuous flow and evolution, whereas as soon as you build something, it freezes the frame. That is what makes architecture so interesting as a material object—you can’t just update it whenever you want to, it has a permanence.

ST: Once it is built, you’re right, it’s a moment captured in time. But architecture is about resistance. You really have to resist natural forces. In a piece I wrote for the Harvard GSD journal, I defined 10 architectural contaminates, one of which is gravity. Everything is subject to gravity and ultimately everything dies. So how do you contend with that? Architecture appears to resist gravity, but that is bullshit, it doesn’t. So how do you accommodate that?

This is why now I’m interested in two things, and two things only: Wabi-sabi and simultaneity.

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese concept honoring the fact that things are never complete, never perfect, never finished. The history of architecture in the West, in the context of the Western pantheon of beauty, has been about trying to get next to God. What’s the phrase? ‘Cleanliness is next to godliness.’ We want to be perfect; we have been trained to strive for perfection. And buildings too are intended to be perfect. But that’s not the way of the world; buildings deteriorate, they collapse, they implode until finally there’s just the skin and bones. I’m interested in that. I’m interested in finding a way into architecture that can accommodate the finite in life itself. At one point in my life, I was a believer in absolute ethics. That has changed because nothing is absolute. As John Whiteman said, buildings, like bodies, begin to die at birth. Thus, Wabi-sabi.

The other thing I’m interested in is simultaneity—in doing two things at once, inhabiting two structures at once. Those are my current interests.

FM: How does that play out in your drawings or in your work?

ST: Well, it’s in my head already, only awaiting a client, an unsuspecting client.

FM: Or another page in the sketchbook?

ST: Exactly, or another page in the sketchbook! I keep drawing this shit all the time. I mean, here’s the latest one at the moment. [Opens up his sketchbook]

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Subconscious outpourings from Stanley Tigerman’s current sketchbook. © Courtesy of Stanley Tigerman.

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Subconscious outpourings from Stanley Tigerman’s current sketchbook. © Courtesy of Stanley Tigerman.

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Subconscious outpourings from Stanley Tigerman’s current sketchbook. © Courtesy of Stanley Tigerman.

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Subconscious outpourings from Stanley Tigerman’s current sketchbook. © Courtesy of Stanley Tigerman.

FM: How do you integrate this more serious side of architecture with the playfulness of your drawings?

ST: What do you mean serious? It’s all serious.

FM: Well, for instance, the contrast between the austerity and permanence of a building like the Holocaust Museum and the humor and satire of your cartoon work?

ST: That is where Wabi-sabi comes in. First of all, architecture should be fun. I take fun very seriously, but I believe in humor. I believe it is an architect’s obligation to make people laugh.

FM: Where does that humor live?

ST: It shows up in these drawings for sure [holds up his sketchbook]. It shows up in the Daisy House.

Do you know the story of that house? The client owned strip joints in Cal City. He was dying of intestinal cancer when he came to me, so I decided that I wanted to make him laugh. I decided to do an erect penis with a scrotum and semen coming out of the end. And he laughed. And I built it. Then, three months later, he died.

My structural engineer said to me 30 years ago, “They should give you a medal because you have done the best buildings for the worst possible clients.” I wasn’t born on the right side of the street. I never had access to society money, so my clients are whoever walks in the door.

FM: It seems like you have been able to use those opportunities distinctly to your advantage. You could have built him a regular, beautiful house, but instead you took the opportunity to build something unusual.

ST: I was trying to do something for the guy; I was trying to make him laugh. You know, your whole life is about making chicken soup out of chicken shit. It’s difficult, and if you’re trained to do certain things, you sometimes take them for granted. That’s a problem. We shouldn’t take things for granted. Look at what Keck said, “You can’t take drawing for granted; you can’t make a less than perfect drawing.” Those drawings at the Graham Foundation were perfect.

FM: So then what about Wabi-sabi?

ST: Then comes Wabi-sabi, which is why I’m interested in that. I am a creature, like you, that’s been trapped by the Western pantheon of beauty.

Architecture is based on faith. You have all these paradigms set before you, all these precedents from Sainte-Chapelle to the Barcelona Pavilion. You are told those are great buildings, those buildings have aura. Now let’s see what you can do, right? It took a while to realize this, but Wabi-sabi is more interesting to me. And simultaneity: how do you do that? How do you challenge a physical law? Einstein did.

FM: Has your interest in “aura” increased over the years?

ST: Dramatically. Once I discovered it, my reading changed. Up until the ‘70s, I only read architecture books because I was basically ignorant. I wasn’t trained in the humanities. Then I started reading some post-structuralism. Then some philosophy. Then theology, and things changed. It took time to sink in, but it did. I read things that have the potential to change my life, the kinds of books that are about the self and reaching inside your own thorax to see what you have in there, who you really are, what is the nature of your ethics?

For me, Wabi-sabi is an ethical issue. The moment you articulate what your interests are, they change. You have to move to the next thing once it’s behind you. The buildings I have built, I look at them with detachment even though I’m the author. When people ask what’s the best building I’ve ever done, I tell them, “The next one.” And when they are built, fuck it, it’s time to be onto the next.

What’s great about the little art studio I did for Eva Maddox is that it was of a moment, and then, the moment passed. The problem with Classicism is that, if you walk in the footsteps of another, you leave no trace that you were here. That’s where design comes in. You’re obligated to make something new. It needs to look new. It can’t be mimetic of others, including your own work. That’s why I don’t do signature work. If I live long enough, I’m sure there will be another moment.

FM: Speaking of ethics: when we think about ethics in architecture, it is generally in terms of ethical responsibility to the rest of the world. An outward responsibility. You implied earlier, however, that it begins with respect for yourself—that a personal responsibility in your own work supersedes the responsibility your work has towards others.

ST: Yes, but then comes respect for any other, not just your own self. There is a story about a child in a book called Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan by a twelfth century polymath named Ibn Tufail who is raised by a deer, and as time goes on the child matures and the deer ultimately withers and dies. The child is thunderstruck by the love the deer has given him, but now the deer is dead. He wants to find the love. So he dissects the deer, filets it out, pulls all the organs out and puts them aside, puts his hand inside the thorax, and discovers nothing. Thus begins his lifelong search for aura. That is what architecture is about, as far as I am concerned: the ineffable. It’s about digging deep into yourself and finding out who the fuck you are. Why are you here? What is your responsibility, ethically and otherwise? It is an incredible book that had a huge impact on me.

FM: How do you see the relationship between aura and the discipline? Contemporary discourse does not seem so concerned with ethics and aura in the way you are thinking about it.

ST: Right, it is concerned with the payroll. How do you feel about that? I was in Mies’ office one day talking to their business manager—this was decades before the computer—and the business manager had a big chart on the wall with the time it took to complete each project. I will never forget this. I was talking to the manager when Mies rolls into the office in a wheelchair—he had fallen down and broken his hip—surrounded by a bunch of Germans in black suits who wanted him to do their corporate headquarters in Germany. Mies looked at the chart and said, “Yes, I can begin the project in three years.” Now that’s very un-American. If it were SOM, they would not have done that; they would have hired for the project and, once the project was over, fired them. Talk about respect for the Other. More often than not, the work on the payroll is more important than the person. I hate that. The discipline is diminished by that kind of behavior.

This is the field that you have opted to be in. How do you feel about people who diminish the discipline like that?

FM: Well, there is a difference between the discipline and the professional field.

ST: That is where we come to another interesting subject, because I have had this conversation with Somol, who of course agrees. The problem is NCARB and the ACSA, because they have these visits for accreditation. They want to make sure you can do X,Y, and Z. Mind you, there is no ethics course, etcetera. You ought to read resumes today. Everyone has at least twenty software programs that they are familiar with.

The problem is that the discipline, the education of an architect today, is more like the profession. It panders to the profession, where the profession should be more like the discipline. I have said this many times. I have also said many times that the practice of law is the perversion of law. The study of law next to theology is the real thing. It is more to the point. It is focused. It is the practice that perverts it. Same with architecture. The practice of architecture should be more like the study of architecture.

In other words, take the goddamn high road and insist on an ethics course. Now that you know about it, why aren’t you insisting on an ethics course at UIC?

FM: Speaking of UIC, we noticed several parallels between your time as director there and the way that Bob Somol has operated under his directorship. Aside from the fact that you brought him there to begin with, you each established a new pedagogy and took risks bringing in a new, young faculty.

ST: I identified with the young faculty, which ultimately got me fired as director. You ought to look at the catalog for the show we did. It is called “Ten Untenured Architects.” It was people like Steve Perrella, Greg Lynn, Eva Maddox, Bob Somol, Maria Smithburg. Very interesting people. The moment the show opened I knew I was toast. I held them up as untenured faculty. Of course, the tenured faculty hated it. So the first thing they did when the new Dean came in was to say, get rid of this asshole, he is the worst thing in the world for us—and they were right. I was the worst thing in the world for them, because I identified with the young, untenured group. That was the way of the future. I believe in the future.

FM: It is pretty incredible to look at the people that you brought in. Despite the fact that they were all fired or quit after you left, they have all been quite influential. You obviously have a knack for seeing talent.

ST: To put it more clearly: I have a talent for pissing people off. That comes with the territory. Bob Stern once said, “If you are the director or dean of a school and the faculty is happy, that means you are not doing anything.”

FM: Looking at the architecture here in Chicago right now, are you excited about anyone in particular?

ST: Look at Ross Wimer at Skidmore. You should have seen his portfolio for his fellowship at the AIA. He is a fabulous talent. As is Jeanne Gang. I love her. It is the next generation. I don’t give a shit about Tom Beeby or Helmut Jahn. It is who’s next that I’m interested in.

When I was leaving Archeworks, there was a symposium called “Passing the Baton.” It was moderated by Ned Cramer, the editor of Architect Magazine. On the platform were young people in positions of authority, new people. People like Sarah Herda, Zoë Ryan, Bob Somol, Martin Felsen, Sarah Dunn, and Greg Dreicer (of the Chicago Architecture Foundation).

I introduced the event by explaining that this symposium was about passing the baton. “What do you mean by passing the baton?” I asked rhetorically. I opened my briefcase and broke out a conductor’s baton. I said that this is one kind of baton. And I broke out a second kind, which is the kind used by relay runners. Then, I broke out a giant hunting knife. I said, “This is the baton I am talking about.” I looked at Ned Cramer and said, “It is your job to kill me.” I tried to hand him the knife, handle-first, and he wouldn’t take it, which meant the next generation wasn’t prepared to do that just yet. Weak.

Your job, like in Greek mythology, is to kill your parents. Your job is to replace them. In order to replace them, you first have to displace them. That is most conveniently done by killing them. That is your job with your birth parents too, and with this magazine—which seems to be doing a good job. In the same way, you are not supposed to stroke people like me into a state of euphoria. You are supposed to replace me. That is your fucking job. Period. You have to do that. In order to do that, you have to be brave. You need to take the knife handle-first.

FM: Do you feel that anyone has taken the knife yet?

ST: They are starting to, I can see it.

FM: What does that look like?

ST: It looks like I am history. Like I should be. Now it’s your generation’s turn, Fresh Meat included. The reason I like it is because it is a tough journal. It is not a little pussycat thing. You need to assert yourself. You need to be here. That is your job, or it will skip generations and the next will do it for you. Either you do it, or someone else will.

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Stanley Tigerman shares the pages of his current sketchbook with Fresh Meat, 2012. © Photograph by Chelsea Ross.