Blair Kamin looks at Stanley Tigerman and his work.

Photo © The Art Institute of Chicago

The Titanic (1978), photomontage on paper, depicting Mies’s Crown Hall sinking into (or perhaps rising up from) Lake Michigan.

To design watchers, Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman and his iconoclastic outbursts are practically as familiar as the rumble of the city’s elevated trains. Could there really be anything new to say about him? The welcome surprise of a new Tigerman show is that it successfully situates its subject, for decades one of Chicago’s dominant architectural voices, within the broader currents of his life and times.

The exhibition took a circuitous route to the Graham Foundation’s Madlener House, where it will appear through May 19 before heading to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It initially appeared at Yale, from which Tigerman received his architectural degrees and to which he has donated his drawing archive. Perhaps its out-of-town origins helped the curator, Emmanuel Petit, achieve some fresh perspective.

The exhibition’s title, Ceci n’est pas une reverie (“This is not a dream”), refers to a Rene Magritte surrealist painting, This is not a pipe, that wryly explores the tension between representation and reality. In a similar vein, the show celebrates Postmodern ambivalence rather than Modernist certitude. Petit organizes Tigerman’s oeuvre, a five-decade array ranging from the Five Polytechnic Institutes in Bangladesh to the Holocaust Memorial Foundation Museum in Skokie, Ill., into nine themed sections. A whimsically scalloped blue “cloud” introduces each section, an apt choice given that ever-changing clouds symbolize Tigerman’s resistance to set-in-stone architectural dogma.

After two refreshingly self-critical sections that cover Tigerman’s derivative early stabs at Brutalism and the mega-structures that were all the rage in the 1960s, the show effectively charts his role in the revolt against orthodox Modernism, part of a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate challenge to authority. If Robert Venturi was the Thomas Jefferson of Postmodernism, eloquently declaring independence from Mies and “less is more” in Complexity and Contradiction, Tigerman was PoMo’s equivalent of Thomas Paine, the firebrand Revolutionary War pamphleteer. His widely-distributed 1978 photo collage, The Titanic, which imagined Mies’ Crown Hall sinking into Lake Michigan, expressed the essence of Postmodernism’s architectural revolution in a single lightning stroke.

But was Crown Hall really sinking? Now that Mies’ stock has rebounded from the Postmodern pounding, Tigerman must wiggle through a reformulation of The Titanic. Sycophantic Miesians may see the collage, he writes in the show’s wall text, “as Crown Hall rising from depths just as iconoclasts may see it as the watershed structure sinking. Given embattled Chicago, it could also as easily be seen as Crown Hall simply—if tenuously—afloat.” The guy has never been at a loss for spin.

The strongest sections of the show deal with Tigerman’s heyday in the 1970s and 1980s as he and his Chicago Seven confreres (Thomas Beeby, Laurence Booth, Stuart Cohen, James Ingo Freed, James Nagle, and Ben Weese) shook up the city’s once-monolithic design scene. His elegant drawings of such seminal projects as the Illinois Regional Library for the Blind and the Physically Handicapped reveal how he broke free from the Miesian grid and neutral palette, introducing curves, colors and a tactile dimension that helped blind users navigate the space.

Indeed, Tigerman’s facility at drawing is one of the show’s highlights, seductively expressing his affinity for allegory, humor, and esoteric dialectic thinking. His ink-on-mylar drawings of the Hot Dog House in Harvard, Ill., so-called because of its wiener-shaped floor plan, reveal it to be much more than the one-liner its irreverent name suggests. Even the seemingly facile, erotically inspired Daisy House in Porter, Ind.—in elevation, a vagina; in plan, a penis—turns out to harbor a gentle humanism. The client, a burlesque house owner, was a terminally ill cancer patient and Tigerman wanted the design to cheer him up.

Yet such architectural jokes have a short shelf life and, besides, there’s a difference between drawing and building, communicating ideas and transforming them into structures that are supposed to keep out the rain. At least some of Tigerman’s buildings flunk this simple pragmatic test. After the show opened, I got the following email from the Hot Dog House’s current owner. “I would say it feels like living in a combination of house boat and treehouse,” he wrote. “It leaks in the rain, and sways in the wind.”

The show also sidesteps its subject’s tendency to flit from one fashion to another—a strategy that may have kept the work fresh and Tigerman in the headlines, but failed to produce a singular, enduring masterpiece.

Tigerman’s cleverly-titled new book, Schlepping Through Ambivalence: Essays on an American Architectural Condition shares the show’s strengths and weaknesses. A collection of previously unpublished essays, edited by the curator Petit, it reveals Tigerman to be adept at biting characterization, a teller of gripping tales, and an incisive architectural observer despite lapses into Eisenmanesque archi-babble. The author’s buildings may not place him in the pantheon of great architects; his forte is commentary rather than construction. Which should come as no surprise: His whole career has been a revolt against “build, don’t talk.”

Contributing editor Blair Kamin is the architecture critic at The Chicago Tribune.