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Designer: Center the 'most important building I've ever done'
By Barbara Vitello | Daily Herald Columnist

Artist's rendering of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.


Courtesy of Bulley & Andrews LLC

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Published: 4/16/2009 11:35 AM

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Architects of Stanley Tigerman's stature typically introduce their designs to clients with a great deal of fanfare, accompanied by PowerPoint presentations, three-dimensional models and artist's renderings.

Tigerman presented his design for the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center on an airplane napkin.

Within hours, the museum's board of directors awarded him the commission for what the world-renowned Chicago architect described as "the most important building I've ever done."

Inspired by the devastation of the Holocaust - "the attempt by the Third Reich to get rid of the history, presence and culture of Jews in Europe," says Tigerman - the combination museum and memorial is visually arresting, deeply symbolic and intellectually satisfying.

Architecturally, it suggests the evolution from despair to hope, a descent into darkness followed by an emergence into the light, which visitors experience as they move through the museum.

Tigerman, who also designed Chicago's Pacific Garden Mission and Anti-Cruelty Society building, was determined to instill a sense of poignancy in his design.

"This is a highly poignant subject," he said. "Six million people killed, the diminishing of Jews and Judaism in the variety of ways the Third Reich accomplished it, how do you embed that into a building? It's very, very difficult."

Described by former Secretary of State Colin Powell as a symbol of remembrance and an inspiration for tolerance, the 65,000-square-foot building is a study in contrasts, at once harsh and graceful, menacing and moving.

The museum is comprised of two steel and concrete wings - one dark, one light, each angled at six degrees - that come together to form the space Tigerman calls "the cleave."

"There is an ineffable space between the two wings that you can't get into. It's an inaccessible cleave between the dark and the light building," he said of the museum, which is located off Golf Road, west of the Edens Expressway.

Visitors enter through the dark building or the southern wing (which faces the west wall of the Temple Mount). Hard lines and angles define the space, which features exposed piping, ducts and conduit that reveals the guts of the building and reflects German industrialization and efficiency that characterized the concentration and extermination camps, says Tigerman.

"There were no frills," said Tigerman, "(the Germans) didn't try to make things pretty." The dark building houses permanent exhibitions depicting Jewish life before the war, the rise of Nazism and the subsequent ghetto-ization, deportation and genocide of the Jews.

Positioned between the buildings is the cleave which houses the museum's centerpiece artifact, a German railcar like those used to transport Jews to concentration camps.

From there, visitors move into the light building - a light curvilinear space - that faces due east, toward Jerusalem and the rising sun. Exhibits detail liberation and include a gallery comprised of works that bear witness to other acts of genocide that occurred in Rwanda, Cambodia, Russia, Latin American and elsewhere. A curved staircase leads to the Hall of Reflection containing 12 benches representing Israel's 12 tribes and including small windows, every one of which contains a candle. Steps away is a cylindrical room whose soaring walls (suggestive of Jerusalem stone) are etched with the names of Holocaust victims. It houses the Book of Remembrance containing names of victims and obtained from Jerusalem's Yad Vashem.

Tigerman describes as "brutal" the rear of the building which greets visitors coming from the west. Austere and fortresslike with concrete barricades, slits for windows and a chilling, circular shape that suggests a smokestack, it conveys menace and oppression. Yet its massive appearance speaks to its permanence, its insistence that never again will Jews be dislocated and disappeared.

Six points of light atop the roof pay homage to the Holocaust's 6 million Jewish casualties. Flanking the exterior of the cleave are two grand steel columns recalling the pillars flanking the Temple of Solomon referenced in the Old Testament. Illuminated, the columns form a dual eternal flame. Lastly, a reflecting pool surrounded by names of Righteous Persons, including Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, German industrialist Oskar Schindler and Poland's Irena Sendler - gentiles who risked their lives to rescue Jews during World War II.

As powerful and moving a statement as Illinois' Holocaust Museum makes, ultimately it falls short, said Tigerman because it is impossible to reflect in concrete and steel the depth of emotion, the extent of suffering and the incalculable loss sustained not just by the Jewish community but by humankind as a whole.

"In the end, as strong as the building is, it's a failure," he said.