Review: The City in Your Pocket, AIA Guide to Chicago

Chicago is so much more than its buildings…still they’re hard to miss. Ever since Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable built his home on the Chicago River’s banks, structures have risen and fallen across the city. Some made names for themselves, while others live quiet lives of commerce and/or habitation. Countless more were built then demolished—some regretfully, many more without a single tear shed.

AIA Guide to Chicago, Fourth Edition
Edited by Laurie McGovern Petersen
University of Illinois Press

All that said, one of Chicago’s bigger tourist draws is its architecture (at least, what remains), but it’s difficult for the layperson to tell one pretty building from another without help. Various guidebooks have appeared through the years to delineate the gems in our skyline’s diadem. Creating a guide that’s light in pounds but not in content is the biggest challenge though. You want to show tourists where to crane their necks without breaking their backs.

The AIA Guide to Chicago isn’t the first Chicago architecture guidebook. In the 1890s, Flynn’s Guide to Chicago was a much-reprinted booklet providing guidance to the splendid edifices of the post-Fire Loop. Local publishers and map-makers Rand McNally later published their Rand McNally’s Birds-Eye Views of Chicago in 1893, to capitalize on the Columbian Exposition. That book provided illustrated views from the air accompanied by descriptions of interesting individual structures in the fledgling metropolis. Countless surveys and textbooks about Chicago and its buildings have appeared since, but these were the first portable guidebooks for the architecturally curious.

Chicago’s Famous Buildings—first published by University of Chicago Press in 1965—was likely the first true Chicago architecture guide. Curated and edited  by IIT Institute of Design professor and photographer Arthur Siegel, Chicago’s Famous Buildings combined text by art historian/Northwestern university professor J. Carson Webster with photographs by Siegel and Richard Nickel, among others. Chicago’s Famous Buildings, now in its fifth edition, was unique because it concentrated on both new and old buildings, added floor plans amidst the usual façade photos, and even left the Loop to visit Chicago’s other neighborhoods.*

Compared to these older guides, The AIA Guide to Chicago is a baby Baedeker. The book was first introduced as a literary companion to the 1993 American Institute of Architects/International Union of Architects World Congress. The fourth and latest edition carries the architectural preservation/celebration flame farther than the previous ones. The press release promises “thirty-four maps and over 500 photos” as well as “2,000 sites” and, as a new edition addition, “80 full-color images” displaying how obscenely wealthy this city is in architectural styles. The AIA Guide to Chicago goes outside the Loop and beyond the city’s showpieces, including manifold lesser-known but no less impressive buildings that represent the bulk of our architectural heritage.

Pilsen Historic District, Chicago, Illinois
By Andrew Jameson, CC BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, a comprehensive guide to Chicago’s buildings is an impossibility (a job, perhaps, best left to the Internet's architectural zealots). By one account, Chicago hosts more than 4.1 million individual units, with 1,397 multi-story high rises alone. Even so, the AIA Guide to Chicago presents a respectable cross-section, though the job demands an impressive talent for brevity. The guidebook’s true talent is in the epigram—terse statements explaining what makes a particular structure important, innovative, or interesting in just a paragraph, phrase, or sentence. These morsels, crafted by fleets of volunteer writers, are satisfying enough for the casual visitor, and will whet the appetite of the more serious architecture buff as well.

Anonymity falls away somewhat as you read on and come to recognize different writers’ voices. The tone ranges from the clipped, educated, and business-like to an insider narration with an acidic tang. Words are few, but never minced. Sometimes the sass is strong, and with good reason. Examples:

“14. Burberry
633 N. Michigan Ave.
2012 Callison Barteluche

"Burberry’s previous store on the site was quietly discrete. This shiny black-glass box amps up the volume to attract attention amid the growing cacophony of signature retail buildings on North Michigan Ave.”

Similarly, Water Tower Place (845 N. Michigan Ave.) is described as a “marble-clad monument to mammon,” while Nicholas Senn High School (5900 Glenwood Ave.) is dismissed as “grand but bland.” Elsewhere,  600 N. Michigan is pointed out for being “yet another retail box on Michigan Ave.” that’s “a poor replacement for the two 1920s facades that gave the boulevard its original character.” The guide is always professional, but these occasional hissings and sharp-toothed bites are delightful to discover.

As for portability, a quick and unscientific weighing on my bathroom scale puts it at about 1.8 pound(s). Not insubstantial, but certainly more featherweight in a car or on a bike rather than curled under one’s arm for several hours of rambling. Even so, and as with most guides, it’s probably more entertaining to peruse it in the comfort of your own home while planning a great day out to see Chicago and its extraordinary collection of buildings.

The AIA Guide to Chicago is available through the publisher’s website and at most bookstores.

* Thanks to Tim Samuelson for the quick history in portable Chicago architecture guidebooks.

Picture of the author
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.