Sitting in the reading room of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman recalls applying to architecture school in 1958. One of the questions asked by Columbia (which the eventual Yalie did not attend) was, “Would you design a concentration camp?” He tells the story while leafing through a rare book from the museum’s collection, which documents the correspondence and working drawings that produced the gas chambers of Auschwitz. “Somebody had to design the things,” says Tigerman, before emphatically adding—“the motherf***ers!”
Tigerman has long been known for his use of specifically (and sometimes whimsical) Judaic ideas in his work. He dubbed a 1977 addition to a North Shore house a “Kosher Kitchen for a Jewish American Princess.” But the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, Ill.—a Chicago suburb that is home to a large number of survivors—is the closest Tigerman has come to building an overtly religious structure based on his interpretation of his Jewish upbringing. He won the commission for the project after his partner (and wife) Margaret McCurry fetched the invitation for the interview from the trash where he had pitched it. “You have to interview for this,” she told him.
Tigerman’s competitors came to the interview with teams of consultants and PowerPoint presentations. He came alone, and with a single napkin sketch that depicted two rectangular structures rotated 5.7 degrees apart. The linear journey through the building—“there’s no going back,” Tigerman says of the path, which leads through exhibits that tell the story of the Holocaust beginning with the oppression of the Jews in Germany and ending with an exploration of post-war Jewish culture—begins with the visitor’s back toward Jerusalem and ends facing due east, representing the anticipation of a messianic age.
Two sites and nine years later, the building that opened is realized almost exactly as presented in the sketch Tigerman did for the interview. Only an early 20th century German boxcar—the museum’s largest artifact—was added to the program. And it fit precisely into the void he drew between the two main volumes.
Tigerman planned the building using the ancient (and biblically cited) measurement of cubits—equal to approximately 18 inches. Since many American construction standards are based on 16-inch modules, there’s a discrepancy between certain elements—such as 18-inch square windows that, with some creative joint work, fit into 16-inch standard modules—due to the difference between the ideal and the practical, an intentional contrast that Tigerman likes to use.
Two ghost-like metal columns establish a symmetrical datum for the two different, but attached, volumes. Their dimensions match the description of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 5–9.
The two distinct volumes are visually opposed through their architectural expression. The entrance and descent into darkness occurs within a dark building with a basilica-type section that’s drawn from typical death camp structures. The ascent to light occurs in a barrel-vaulted white structure that’s rooted in Tigerman’s understanding of the experience in the camps. “White is about hope,” he says—and it started in the death camps. “They made art, they played in orchestras,” Tigerman says. “If you’re alive, there’s always hope.”
Three circular spaces cap the ascent to light. First is a theater that displays films about the continuing efforts against genocide in the period since the Holocaust. Next, the visitor climbs to the second floor and the brightly lit Hall of Reflection—where one can sit on one of 12 cubes, measuring a cubit on each side, that represent the 12 tribes of Israel. Finally, the smaller Room of Remembrance is accessed via a walkway that overlooks the exhibits; it’s located at the hinge between the two buildings.
Tigerman worked on the project for almost a decade, amassing numerous friends within the survivor community. Although these individuals may soon be gone, their bond with the sometimes serious, sometimes irreverent architect is obvious in the project’s outcome. Anyone who spends time with these extraordinary people will be moved by their stories of youthful horror and the amazing lives that followed in its wake.
“It’s about resilience, renewal, and spirit,” says the museum’s executive director, Richard Hirschhaut. The statement applies equally to the building, its patrons, and its architect.