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The Ethics of Design

An Interview with Stanley Tigerman


After nearly five decades of practicing architecture in Chicago, Stanley Tigerman is ingrained in the city's walls. The streets of his career are lined with awards, accolades and recognition, and his work has grown with the integrity of Chicago architecture. Since 1982, he and partner (and wife), Margaret McCurry, have forged the firm Tigerman McCurry Architects. Often called the dean of Chicago architecture, this Yale graduate is most renowned, in recent years, for bucking the system in his devotion to civic causes. Marrying social justice and design, an unexpected couple, Tigerman founded Archeworks more than 10 years ago with Eva Maddox. This alternative design school offers a one-year, post-professional program centering on design solutions for social needs. Last year, Archeworks released Design Denied: The Dynamics of Withholding Good Design and its Ethical Implications. Here, as he taps his pen emphatically to enunciate his ideas, he discusses the importance of good, ethical design, discrimination and building for those who need it most.

In your opinion, what are the ethics of design?

I think it begins with ethics -- put design aside. I think that architecture, for instance, is an ethical pursuit. It's not a pursuit about commodification. I think in order to practice architecture ethically, you need to be an ethical person. You have to be consistent in the way that you behave with respect to ethics [and] morality. It starts there. I'm not talking about practical ethics of undercutting fees and all that, although at the end of the day much of it leads toward that, but I am talking about your obligation to the planet, to sustainability, your obligation to give back to society, an architect's obligation to produce the best stuff he or she can for those who can't afford it. See, most of the architects are employed by people who can afford it.

How do you define good design?

One could just talk about design or architecture, but when you say good design or good architecture, you're placing a value. You're saying that architecture or design without a value associated with it is good. When you add that value, when you say good design, you're saying that you're producing the best possible stuff you can do. One should never have to say good design or good architecture. You just ought to say design or architecture, and that automatically means good. It's not the way it is because architects and designers will sometimes sell their mothers for a nickel and build something that's a piece of shit. Do I have to give you examples in terms of clothing, objects, rooms, furniture, buildings, d?cor, cities, urban design and so forth?

With respect to the book, we had long discussions about what is "good". About 5 years ago, we were working on an Archeworks project on the penal system because you know we have a problem in America and Europe -- we are interested in punishing and punishment. So if you rob someone, we don't just put you away and monitor you or try to rehabilitate you, we punish you. And so that year, Eva and I went with the team to the Federal Detention Center on Clark and Van Buren, the isosceles triangle, tall concrete building. While we were walking around with the deputy warden, I happened to notice that the prisoners were sitting around not doing much. So I thought about where they get their energy. I said to the guy, "Where do they get their protein?" Before the guy could answer, I said, "Well, you probably don't serve them steak." He said, "Yeah, right." I said, "You probably don't feed them chicken." He said, "Right." I said, "You probably serve them some kind of mystery meat." And the guy said, "Right."

He said, "It's the will of society to punish prisoners," or words to that effect. And so we withhold certain things. Design is one of them. Did you ever see a pretty prison? That one's not bad. That's the best one. Not great, but it's not bad. But it's the only one in the United States, and since I know architecture, trust me, it's the only one.

I suddenly realized that not only do people make decisions as surrogates for say prisoners or for teenagers, in terms of juvenile detention, but [also] for poor people. In terms of public housing, it's common knowledge, long before exposed ducts and pipes became fashionable. There were never any cabinet doors on kitchen cabinets. There were never any closet doors on closets -- everything was exposed. Why would you give somebody who's poor something good, something that you could afford? So I realized that good design was being withheld from people. I thought, why don't we do a book on who withholds from whom, thus the beginning of Design Denied.

Isn't everything around us designed by surrogates?

There are surrogates for everything. The clothes that you buy were not designed for you. It's a surrogate -- it's a designer who says there's a certain age bracket, a certain this and that, and we can sell x, so we made them for y, we can make a profit of z, if we sell so many thousands of such and such. Surrogates decide what is good for you. You're aware of that? You must be. They decide what foods you should eat, what is pretty, what you should watch on TV. Just like George Orwell's 1984, they decide your life. Scout's Honor. So architecturally, it's the same. The guys who get screwed are poor people. Somebody decides, what do they need closet doors for? What do they need a doorman for? Why would we spend money on that? The minimum door is 6-foot-8 high. They don't need a full-height door. They don't need a really terrific curtain wall and a thermal break curtain wall that really keeps the cold out. We never even consult them. You at least, if you buy that shirt, they'll do some market research on your demographics. For the poor, prisoners, black people, people who are discriminated against, nobody gives two cents worth of thought about that. They make the decision. They're withholding good design.

To what degree does good design affect people's lives?

Huge. For example, before the public housing act went up in the '50s, there was urban renewal. Why was there urban renewal? To clean out ghettos. On the surface of it, it's about hygiene because the ghettos were dirty. They were actually filled with black people, and it was a racist move. They couldn't be controlled real well by the police. In order to better control, they built high-rises with open areas. Now you could concentrate poor people, generally poor, black people, into tall buildings where one person [could] keep their eye on them, a cop in a car who comes and goes. Then somebody had the bright idea, actually a guy for whom I was employed a thousand years ago, to do single loaded galleries instead of double loaded corridors, oriented to the south, way before energy concerns, which was good. So they became open galleries. In order to protect people, it couldn't just be open rails because somebody could fall or jump off. They did chain link from floor to ceiling. Do you know what chain link looks like? Looks like something you'd find in a prison. So if you build that way guess how the people respond? By rebelling. So design has an impact. If you withhold good design, you can actually cause people to behave in less than laudatory fashion.

Do you think the impulse to think, create and invent has subsided in recent years?

I don't think so. I'm an architect, so I'm optimistic by nature. I'd kill myself if I believed that. We're a more sophisticated culture all the time. We're more aesthetically inclined. I mean, look back 10, 20, 50, 80 years ago, what people were wearing, driving [and] doing. It goes back to this little instrument (points to digital recorder). That's a fabulous little instrument, as opposed to if you would have been doing this interview 20 years ago. The damn thing would have been about this big (spreads his hands apart a foot). There's better design reaching more people all the time. The problem is it's reaching people who can afford to pay for it. There's precious little effort for the poor, the indigent [and the] criminals. There's no interest like this -- zero, zero.

Is good design always good?

The answer is, not really. For example, there's a homeless guy at Ontario and the expressway if you're going onto the Kennedy at Orleans. He always has some crappy cardboard sign. It says "help" or whatever to get money. So the kids one of the years we worked on the project thought, it's a really shitty sign -- why don't we get a great sign for him? So they went up to him and persuaded him to try. But he got nothing because it was well done. That little, crappy piece of torn corrugated was a sign he was in need. If he holds up this fabulously designed sign, people would go, "Are you nuts? I'm not going to give you anything."

What would good design for homeless people entail?

We're doing it right here in this office. Do you know the Pacific Garden Mission? It's around 600 South State Street. It's a huge, 117-year-old evangelically run facility, and they're moving for various reasons to another site. I'm the architect. We're doing a very nice project, and people have already said, "It's for homeless people. Are you crazy?" We're putting in greenhouses to train them to become gardeners. People could give a damn about poor, homeless, indigent, criminal types. [They think] that good design is not for them. I would submit it is precisely for them. They need it way more than somebody sitting in Lake Forest who wants to do a big villa.

In the shelter, we have a cloister to protect them from the public -- not the public from them. The cloister has its own outdoor environment protected by the building, and that terraces back. It's quite nice, and it ain't cheap. It's a green building -- it's all about sedum, rooftop plants, solar power and a ton of other stuff like that. We're doing an interior street that will be like a yellow brick road and will have outdoor street furniture, outdoor street lighting and kiosks on where to get a bath in Chicago [or] where to get a job. They could have job fairs. In the cloister, we're going to use the produce to have markets on Saturdays to bring the public in to become less fearful of these unbathed creatures. It's the right thing to do. It doesn't make me a hero. It's what every damn architect should be doing, and most none of them are doing it.

Has your work always been driven by social causes?

No. I slowly evolved. You can't talk out of one side of your mouth and then build out of the other side. So I don't work for the rich anymore, doing suburban villas for princes and princesses. I turn them down. There are plenty of architects who do it very well -- they don't need me. We're doing a Holocaust museum, a mission [and] a national training center for a bricklayers union. Those are my kinds of people. Forget the damn Yale degrees. That's who I really am, how I grew up, on the wrong side of the tracks. Finally I've gotten back there, where I belong, and I'm much more comfortable.

What would you like to see designers do?

I'd like to see designers develop their moral fiber. I'd like to see them say "no" more to clients, like when people through their own greed want something that's bad for others. It's all about bravery because when you say "no," you can get fired.

Is green design intrinsic to the ethics of design?

You can't talk about an ethical practice unless you're engaged in green design. It should be automatic. Every building should be minimally LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified. We're lucky to have a mayor who believes it entirely. If you're an architect and you don't do that, you need to be shot, adding to the pollution.

What kind of role should the government have in protecting the environment?

We are all obligated. We are ruining the damn planet. The best thing that could happen to Detroit, the most deserving thing, is to fail because the damn American car is a disaster. It consumes fossil fuel. There could have been a tubeless tire 60 years ago, and you'd never have a flat. Why isn't the smart car here? Why aren't there solar cars? The government is about the good of the many. For example, if you feel strongly about x, y or z, you need to vote. If you really feel strongly, you need to run for office to make a difference. Good people who have strong feelings about this, that or the third thing should really be running for office and throw all the bastards out. We're all in this together -- the environment, the big black hole in the sky, the pollution. If you don't separate your garbage, what are you doing?

What needs to change in the education of design?

Courses on ethics. I love the fact that a kid who was in Archeworks is now teaching a course on Design Denied at the Art Institute. That's molto cool.

Do you think substantial discrimination still exists?

You're a woman. It's more dangerous for you to walk down the street in a dark neighborhood because of your gender. Now imagine if you were black of either gender, worse being black and a female. That's two strikes in discriminatory sense. You see a guy's black. You can't always tell that I'm Jewish. There's discrimination, even with a couple of degrees from an Ivy League school. Discrimination is only sometimes leveled at me because I have other things that make me appear to be legitimate, but women and blacks, no matter where they went to school, they're still women, they're still black. They can be discriminated against straight, and they are.

Yes, discrimination exists, and the question is, how do you contend with it? You, me, a 75-year-old man, and you're in your 20s. How do you talk about it? To what degree do you lay out your soul? How brave are you? How much are you willing to settle for? My life's over. Your life's ahead. What are you going to do?

As rapidly as things like technology have changed, other things haven't changed at all. It's the equal responsibility of a man and woman to raise children, the equal responsibility of both to put bread on the table and the equal responsibility of both to become stars, to be really well known and renowned for what they do.

It's about bravery. Tough is good. Soft is bad because it's the weak who will kill you, not the strong. The strong, you'll know where they stand. The weak will lie to you to get along and say shit behind your back. The strong will not do that. They'll say it bad to you straight to your face, and you'll know where you stand.

>Can landmark buildings be retrofitted and still preserve their integrity?

Sure. It's like ripping the skin off your body to constantly be tearing down stuff. One of the great tragedies of our time was right here in Chicago, all the public housing, all those tall buildings, are coming down. It's just a shame that the energy to make such things gets thrown away, and you have to [throw] away energy once again, even to do responsible buildings. You have to face your problems. It was a problem of ours, collectively. We are quick to tear down things because we're still very young as a nation.

Published: April 01, 2006
Issue: Spring 2006