What does it say about an architect’s career if his best-known work, the largest image in a half-century retrospective, is a photo-collage of Mies van der Rohe’s 1956 Crown Hall, sinking slowly beneath the waters of Lake Michigan? I’ll tell you what I think it says about Stanley Tigerman: He’s better as a satirist than as an architect. And it isn’t only me that might have preferred a show titled, “The Provocations of Stanley Tigerman.”
Reading curator Emanuel Petit’s opening text about how Tigerman (who graduated from Yale in 1961, and has practiced in Chicago ever since) embraces “the spiritual and ethical value of ambivalence” and “resist[s] the traditional aesthete’s credo of purging art of its disturbances” I rolled my eyes at Petit’s humorless, academicizing prose, but thought, So far, so good. Here we are in the territory of the Yale-educated post-modernists, who learned from Paul Rudolph (there’s some lovely Rudolphian and Kahnian early work by Tigerman in the section “Yaleiana”) and then headed West. That Tigerman was already looking beyond the reigning architecture gods is made clear by the inclusion of a set of his early 1960s experiments in Op Art.
One feels tremendous sympathy for the rage to get out of the long shadow of Mies, which Tigerman channeled into exhibitions and publications with a sort of Salon des Refuses, The Chicago Seven. You see how cheeky (literally) Tigerman’s cartoons were, with their filigree of naked putti. I get the joy inherent in designing a work like the 1976-77 Labadie House, shown here in exquisite large-scale cutaway axonometric drawings, with its cascades of Corbusian piano-curves, its repeated spiral stairs. There’s something tender about this 1970s work. When’s the last time you visited an architecture exhibit with no photographs? It may be hard to tell the built from the unbuilt, but it is an effective statement about self-representation.
But is it the Labadie house I would want to live in? No. It is a provocation as a house, Richard Meier with a stutter, mannerist in the extreme. It is the Vanna Venturi House ten years later, richer in execution but still architecture with more head than heart. The shadow of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown hangs over the exhibition, and I feel the same way about them as I do about Tigerman: respect the mind, feel nothing for the built work. More importantly, is it a house with followers? I don’t think so.
Petit has divided the show into fancifully-named sections (even more fancifully designated with cartoony clouds in a very post-modern blue): “Drift” and “Humor,” “Allegory” and “Death.” But most of the buildings could easily come under the category “Allegory,” which makes them seem like verbal stunts. There’s Anti-Cruelty Society Addition (1979) with a dog face. The Daisy House (1976-78) that looks like private parts in plan. And to show that he continues to design in this way, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center (2000) with a dark building through which you descend, a light building through which you ascend. It may be effective as an exhibition, but seems too literal to be good, long-lasting architecture.
This sounds dismissive. I was hoping the exhibition would give me an image from Tigerman’s own architecture I could admire, and prove his importance. In an accompanying video Yale Dean Robert A.M. Stern says of Tigerman, “One of the best parts of Stanley is he’s outrageous.” But the outrages all feel past. Already the in-jokes and references from the 1970s are becoming hard to decipher, and soon the provocations and tiffs will also be history. Architecture needs shows like this so we can annotate the jokes before their meaning is gone, but that’s a narrow path to tread. It has nothing of the cheekiness and energy of the original sinking of Crown Hall.