Stanley Tigerman: Architecture's Social Conscience

Q&A with the Chicago-based architect

Stanley Tigerman, FAIA, is not one who minces words. The Chicago-based architect has, over the past half-century, been on the forefront in advocating new approaches to architecture. In recent years, he has emerged as the voice of an architect’s social conscience.

Tigerman is distressed that in the perpetual rat race for well-heeled clients and new work, architects may have lost their moral bearings. We spoke with him about how architects can embrace social causes and sustainable design to shore up the profession’s moral foundation.

You said, “Architects need not be distant from whom we purport to design for.” In doing this project, you spent a lot of time at the Pacific Garden Mission in order to understand what it’s like to be homeless, like you served pre-Thanksgiving dinner there. Why?

Tigerman: We’re trying to make a home for (the homeless), a refuge, in a society that doesn’t give a damn about them. It’s interesting to be an architect because architects have power. Make no mistake. How you design (gives you power).

The Pacific Garden Mission is going to be LEED-certified. You’ve said in an interview with The New York Times that “sustainable design is exciting because all of a sudden architecture loses a lot of its frivolity.” But no architect would like to think that what they do is frivolous.

Frivolous is self-involved. You imagine things, which is great, because architects need to have an imagination. When it’s at the expense of human endeavor, that’s frivolous. I mean architecture in a useful art. ... At least, architects (should) engage in sustainable design, engage in behaviorally responsible design. Here in Chicago we have a great mayor, Mayor Daley, who is arguably the Daniel Burnham of the 21st century, who is on the cutting edge of sustainable design or any city. Two years ago, there were a million square feet of green roofs in Chicago. You know how many there are today? Two-and-a-half million. Which means in two years there will probably be seven million. In a couple of years you won’t be able to get a permit to do a building unless it’s LEED-certified. You won’t be able to even build. Put that in your pipe, Mr. Developer, and puff away at it.

I understand that you’ve had enough of working for the rich and you find it more rewarding to design for the poor. So, what has been the payback, given that you took a discount on your fees?

The payback is this is a staggeringly important job. It’s a hugely important job, so of course it is rewarding. Also, I could do things that are almost beyond architecture. Muck around with the program, help them consider new ways to do this, that, and the third thing. It is rewarding... because it’s something important for people who need good things. Rich people don’t need me. There’re plenty of architects, good architects, to do villas for princes and princesses. I’m not needed. You see, you want to go where you feel you’re needed. I’ve worked in areas of social causes before and it’s very rewarding because you’re doing something for people who never had access to, say, good design. Never, never. Period.

In your 2005 book Design Denied: The Dynamics of Withholding Good Design and its Ethical Implications, it says that often good design, or any design, is denied to those who need it most but can least afford it. Why don’t they get more attention from good architects?

Good architect—what is a good architect? A good architect in one way or another breaks boundaries; or finds new ways of doing things; or designs very well, meticulously, has a very good material and so forth. But those things are generally for the wealthy and/or for institutions. But people who need good design—the poor, the homeless, the underserved—don’t get it. Low-cost housing, shelters: those are a whole panoply of typographies that don’t get it because, in part, the fees aren’t great. And many architects feel encumbered, hampered by code (or) by programmatic constraints. They feel that they don’t have the opportunity so they don’t seek it out.

Let’s look at the brighter side. In the aftermath of the tsunami in Southeast Asia and, here at home, Hurricane Katrina, we’ve seen the rise of humanitarian efforts, if you will, on the part of architects, such as Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity. Do you think this is just an ad hoc response?

It is proactive. I think Cameron Sinclair a proactive guy. I think Sam Mockbee was, when he was alive. But you can’t name five architects that would do what Cameron does. And he is on his own. ... He is outside the system. There are some good things being done, no doubt, in terms of Katrina. So I can’t be simplistic and say all architects are blind or that they have no moral compass. In no way can I say that. ...

Putting that aside, do you think more and more architects, on their own, are finding their social conscience?

Yes. They will because architects intrinsically are good people. They are also brave people: because to be an architect you need to be brave; because inertia always stands in your way; because if you try to put something where nothing ever was before, you find the resistance, philosophical, religious, professional, economic, you know. …I think what’s more important is that architects find their moral center. And that comes through education. It comes through reading. It comes through a desire to level the playing field, to be a humanitarian intrinsically themselves.

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