The first time I realized Stanley Tigerman, who passed away on June 3 at the age of 88, was a seriously good architect was when I visited the Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Disabled in Chicago, which he designed in 1974 and which opened in 1976. Its façade was a squiggle come to life: an undulating line cut into white stucco that let you glimpse the offices inside. The entrance was on the rear, and as you moved past the front you realized that it was just that—a thin sheet propped up to hide a long rectangle clad in metal panels painted bright orange. You parked behind the box before stepping inside where the same squiggle now appeared in plan as a counter that dipped up and down, allowing people in wheelchairs to speak directly to the staff on the other side.

What I had noticed in the publications about the building was the expressiveness of its forms and colors (the cross bracing was painted bright yellow), its references to the act of design itself (that squiggle), the car ironically outlined in the façade of the service building behind it to tell you that the parking was there, and the Pop Art references. What I experienced was the beauty of its composition in three dimensions, the logic of its zoning and plan, and the sheer exuberance of its forms, all of which Tigerman intended to appeal to a sight-impaired clientele that could appreciate such strong shapes and hues.

Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and Disabled

It could be tempting not to take Stanley Tigerman seriously. He was a showman, an impish questioner of all received truths and pompous personalities. His favorite mode was sarcasm delivered with a twinkle in his eye (a cliché that suited him like no one else). I soon learned not to be deceived. His designs may have appeared lighthearted and humorous (his Daisy House in the Indiana Dunes was shaped like the male sex organ, complete with white steps erupting from the main shaft and a façade that referenced an open mouth), but they were always seriously good. That was true whether he was designing a house or a building with weightier implications, such as the Illinois Holocaust Museum, a succession of arches and gables receding to a central tower of remembrance, a plan that is both logical and full of spatial effects. This architect controlled his building elements like an old-fashioned maestro.

Illinois Holocaust Museum
Illinois Holocaust Museum

Trained at Yale and in his early years at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, he was steeped both in the grid- and window-wall obsessed environment of his native Chicago and in the dedication to learning and the humor that marked his Jewish upbringing. Tigerman became one of the central figures in the American version of Postmodernism that mixed a rediscovered (or reimagined) vernacular with a lighthearted version of Classicism and a delight in popular culture. With the founding of the Chicago Seven (the name alluded to the protesters who went on trial in the city after the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention), Tigerman assembled a group that rejected Modernism as a tool of capitalist oppression; through his deanship of the architecture school at the University of Illinois at Chicago he became the Godfather of Postmodernism, Midwestern Chapter.

Perhaps ringmaster might be a more apt term: at Circle Campus, as the school was then called, he collected a menagerie of both established and up-and-coming designers and thinkers and set them up for students to compare and contrast. When he gave me a teaching gig there in 1987, he paired me with Patrick Pinnell, an architect and historian with a more classical bent. “It was like watching a good Ping-Pong match,” one of our students later recalled. Tigerman also urged me on into a debate with Jeff Kipnis after he gave a lecture there, so that soon the entire school was standing around and above us on balconies as if they were watching a boxing match.

For all those who have missed the beauty and importance of his work because it was overshadowed by his self-deprecating humor, or because he lived and worked almost exclusively in Chicago, or because Postmodernism came and went in but a moment, I would say, look again, go see the work.

Tigerman’s academic and theoretical work was as serious as his buildings were disciplined and functional. He believed in the importance of architecture as both a moral and ethical act rooted in our consideration of values, and in its social responsibilities. It is remarkable how much of his built work, which in the latter part of his career he produced in partnership with his equally talented wife, Margaret McCurry, was for social purposes. He never built skyscrapers (even though he loved them) or other corporate structures, and he never developed a large office as a result. After turning the school at Circle Campus into one of the best programs in the country, he co-founded Archeworks, an interdisciplinary nonprofit laboratory dedicated to architecture and design that made a material difference in people’s lives.

Because our society does not value such dedication the way it does commercial or media success, Tigerman never received the amount of international respect or recognition some of his peers did. Not that it seemed to bother him. He continued to design, question, comment, and urge all of us to fight for an architecture infused by both memory and the belief that we could build a better world. For all those who have missed the beauty and importance of his work because it was overshadowed by his self-deprecating humor, or because he lived and worked almost exclusively in Chicago, or because Postmodernism came and went in but a moment, I would say, look again, go see the work. Stanley Tigerman was, in every sense of the phrase, a truly great architect.