Tigerman Sees Red (and Topaz)

Topaz Medallion winner Stanley Tigerman calls it like he sees it.

At the very end of last year, the American Institute of Architects awarded Chicago-based architect Stanley Tigerman the Topaz Medallion, which “honors an individual who has made outstanding contributions to architecture education for at least 10 years.” Technically, Tigerman practices with his wife, Margaret McCurry, as Tigerman McCurry Architects , and directs, along with Eva Maddox, his hometown’s Archeworks school, which provides a one-year post-professional education grounded in social causes. Some of his well-known projects include a playfully wonky (some might dare call it postmodernist) Children’s Advocacy Center, and the Pacific Garden Mission, a center for Chicago’s homeless. Practically, Tigerman thinks, disregards, considers, blames, hopes, and criticizes. He is judgmental, thoughtful, optimistic, and politically incorrect. No one is immune: his peers, his friends, his professors, his interviewer. Eva Hagberg takes a walk on his educational wild side.

Good morning Stanley.
You’re right on time. Actually you’re a little late.

It’s 11:01. That seems pretty on time to me.
Yeah, OK.

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So let’s talk about your idea of architecture as a social response. Why is that such a factor in your design?
I think it’s about being responsible. Architecture is a pursuit that ought to be seen in a more responsible light than it is. And I think that architects ought to be responsible to society in a number of ways and they need to do that for two reasons: number one is that they’re—presumably—human beings, and secondly, if we don’t do it, who the hell is going to?

I see my very good friends Peter Eisenman and Frank Gehry, who are very good architects. They are encouraging—inadvertently or not—as teachers, students to…how do I say… to emulate them. I find that problematic. I come from a generation where people like Harry Cobb—you know who he is, right?—and Paul Rudolph were very good at bringing us as good as we were. They didn’t try to encourage us to design in their image—not that Cobb had an image—nonetheless they produced a panoply of students whose work ranges from the extreme left to the extreme right. It’s an indication of a Socratic posture that can only be seen as admirable. I think things have happened since Paul’s time. Rome is burning.

Do you know how many Vietnam vets are homeless?

I’m really bad at these numbers guessing things. (But I guess 100,000)
200,000. We’re not being real good about the veterans coming back from Iraq, so when you get a number like 200,000, that’s very troubling. So what is it that you do when you’re doing a homeless facility? What is it that you do when you’re working with kids who’ve been thrown out of high school, and this is the last stop? What do you do as the carbon footprint on our planet increases rather than decreases? What’s your response as a human being? I’m asking questions, but the answers are built into the questions.

We have to behave responsibly. That’s what’s fabulous about architecture; it’s like many other things in life. It’s transparent. If you’re interested in marketing and branding, you’ll be known for it. If you’re interested in being perceived as an aesthete, you’ll be known. If you’re socially responsible, you make your own judgments. You, Eva Hagberg. Me, Stanley Tigerman. Everyone else. I think that’s where architecture is at. It’s taken me my whole life to figure that out.

I’m not very smart. It takes a long time to figure this crap out. But I finally did. Do you want to spend a lifetime doing suburban villas for princes and princesses, or do you do something for people who really need what you do? Do you make your own decisions?

So one of the ways you try and change things is by teaching. What’s your plan there?
If you look at an educational curriculum, do you find any courses on ethics? I don’t think so. [EH, internally: My mom teaches ethics.] What you find is a lot of courses on computer technology to make you useful in an office. Is that what education is about? These are interesting questions. You gotta ask them. What about the AIA? You want to look at the website of the AIA ethics clause? When I joined the AIA forty-three years ago you couldn’t displace another architect without letting him know. You couldn’t undercut fees. You couldn’t market, you couldn’t brand. Now you can undercut fees, you can market, you can brand. And the AIA forces it at their conventions by spending tons of time on shit like marketing and branding! I’m asking YOU the questions.

I mean, why the fuck doesn’t Metropolis branch outside this interview? Spend the bulk of every goddamn issue on these ethical subjects, instead of branding Hariri + Hariri, or Peter, all of whom are very good architects of course. There’s this other side, the crappy architects you guys publish, at least these guys are really good. But I think encouraging signature work in formalistic ways is discouraging to people who are trying to be responsible, say, environmentally. Where were architects in the leadership field? Where were architects when ADA loomed large on the horizon? Were they leaders in terms of sustainability? Absolutely not.

I think Metropolis does a lot of thoughtful stories. But back to education. It’s good to hear this—I was very disappointed in architecture school by what I was taught and how it was taught.
You’re building for surrogates, developers. Do developers give a shit about ethics? Environmental sustainability? They think it hampers their marketing and branding. How about architects who brand thing—making things visible and comprehensible like McDonald’s arches, to make money for the people branding it. Is that what architects are really supposed to be doing?

I think it’s important that architects translate what they’re doing into visual cues people can understand. What do you think they are supposed to be doing?
Taking the high road! And showing a better way! Not formalistically, but paradigmatically. They’re supposed to be working with the homeless and the poor. Not all the time, but not just when accidents of life happen that a client walks in the door.

I think there’s space for the formalists, and rich people need houses.too.
Absolutely. There ought to be space. But the entire space? I don’t think so. Students in architecture school are impressionable, gullible, and a new “interesting form” is attractive to all of us. I’m from Chicago. I was born here. I’m still here. Mies van der Rohe said, “I’d rather be good than interesting.” I think that’s a pretty powerful statement. Sure there ought to be space to explore forms, but you’d think that’s all there is.

That’s what we get taught, though. Things didn’t make any sense to me in architecture school. We were shown images, then told, “You won’t understand this for five years but that’s ok.” I thought then when I didn’t get it that it just meant I was stupid. I think now that was an unfortunate way to teach. Why is architectural education so incomprehensible?

It’s to perpetuate a myth. In the same way that people talk in an arcane language. It’s not so that you can understand them, but so they can retain the myth. And architects are no different. You present it as part of a mystique.

A friend of mine and I had this ongoing argument—he was writing a thesis about something really difficult to understand, and he said he wrote about it really vaguely, in a difficult to understand way, because that was the only way to represent this difficult idea. And I thought the complete opposite—the more difficult the idea, the more straightforwardly you have to explain it.
Lest you or Metropolis readers think that this is just the negative rant of an unhappy old man, let me give you the positive spin. The fact that the AIA gave me the Topaz Medallion did not go unnoticed by me. I feel very good about it, very flattered that they did that. I spent the last fifteen years of my life in an alternative architecture institution. And so maybe, just maybe, this is a sign that the AIA are interested in change. Maybe there’s a movement for change. Maybe social cause, alternative architectural education, maybe they’re important subjects. And maybe they might even take their place alongside, or be at least equal to, formalistic manipulation.

So in your ideal world, what should we be learning?
Architecture is far beyond a functional or useful pursuit or set of constraints. I mean, listen, Peter’s not only a very good friend of mine, he’s the dysfunctional sibling I never had. And he’s a brilliant educator.

You know, everyone says that. But I had him as a teacher, and I was so excited, and I was profoundly disappointed.
That’s because he was teaching Peter Eisenman. He turns his schools into academies.

What’s so great about that?
He’s bringing people out, even within parameters that foster his interests. At the very least you can say he’s a good architect. I mean, think of people like Carlos Vallhonrat?

He was so sweet when I was in school!
Exactly—everyone think he’s the den mother. He’s so sweet. There’s a reason Carlos didn’t get tenure. I mean, Princeton is a terrific institution. I love it largely because it has these twelve PhD candidates running around, so intellectually it’s a serious place. But it has predilections. Harry Cobb was a wonderful teacher who was open to anything. But at Princeton, do you see New Urbanists, classicists running around? It’s about the predilections of the faculty and whoever’s direction, whether it’s Stan now or Ralph before, it’s all about form. Period. End of discussion. It’s all about form. They’d argue, “No it’s not true, look at all our work” and they’ve got that great structural engineer, what’s his name?

Guy Nordenson?
Yes. But beyond that it’s known as an intellectual institution. If you want to be a professional at Skidmore you go to Harvard. Princeton, Columbia, Yale, they all have identities. Does that make them bad schools? On the contrary. But as you start moving down the line they start becoming less and less interesting because they’re filled with people who are not great teachers. Is Princeton bad? Absolutely not. It may be the best school of architecture—at least it was—in the country. But does that make it good in terms of bringing up issues like ethics? Do you think they should loom large? I do. I think it transcends aesthetics. Doing the right thing is at the root of architecture.

John Hejduk was my favorite guy in the last quarter of the twentieth century. He was a poet. Forget his actual poetry, which sucked. But was he really interested in building, in transcending paper architecture? Absolutely not. Liz Diller notwithstanding, how many of those kids who graduated Cooper went on to actually make things? Outside of Liz and one or two others? Is Danny really interested in making something? The answer is no, absolutely not. If you look at his buildings in terms of detailing or weathering, absolutely not. Is that what architecture is? Is there room—and this is your question, not mine—for form to be taught in schools? Absolutely. And Danny’s a fabulous intellect.

But why does there have to be this separation? Shouldn’t good architects have good intellects and build good buildings?
It’s all about politics. Danny may have problems. But let’s say in terms of ethics, David Childs’ relationship with Libeskind and that shit developer, that was abominable. Having said that, SOM probably has more talented people than anyone. Roger Duffy is one of the best architects in the United States. There’s no question in my mind. They’ve got Ross Wimer. And then there are all the young people that nobody knows about, that place is loaded with talent. But why don’t the buildings express that so much? It gives democracy a bad name. Anyone can jump onto a building at any time and change it. That’s a problem.

There’s no simple answer. All I’m saying is that there are other issues that are really important: like social and sustainable behavioral responsibilities that architects need to undertake. You cannot be perceived as a human being in 2008 and not be responsive to the real problems of the day. Not imagined problems. Not problems that Wolf Prix dreams up. Does that make Wolf Prix a bad architect? Absolutely not. From a formal point of view he’s really adroit.

Take Peter. My dear friend. We talk at least once a week. He said, “LEED doesn’t make a good building.” And I said, “You’re absolutely right, but non-LEED doesn’t make a good building either. At least LEED shows you’re being a responsible human being. Are you responsible, Peter? Do you give a shit? Or do you just want to play-play?” We have this discussion all the time, and he disagrees, violently. Because, like Philip Johnson, he sees architecture as art. And I see architecture as being responsible. But I also see it as being aesthetically responsible.

Building well is the best revenge, and that’s part of being responsible, part of being an ethical person. And ethics is not easy. Read George Moore, the turn of the century philosopher. Is it an absolute value or a relative value? Ethics is a serious subject, and it needs to be dwelt upon by architects at length. So here we are. What are you going to say? “This guy’s nuts, he doesn’t know the answer.” And the answer is you’re right. I have no clue.

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