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.