A Short Guide To
Architectural Guidebooks



Chicago: Maturity

aia chicago guide

With advances in architectural scholarship (and a corresponding loosening of the self-conscious Modernist manacle), and the settling of certain (frequently, but not always, Gebhardian) formatic traits, there was greater broad-based refinement to the run of architectural guidebooks in America over the 1980s and 90s, even in those which carried the AIA's imprimatur (of which Atlanta's is, to Canadians, noteworthy for being authored by Ernest Cormier scholar Isabelle Gournay). Of this latest long-term wave, the AIA Guide To Chicago (Alice Sinkevitch, ed., 1993) can be singled out, not least for the universally acknowledged architectural renown of its subject city. ("The liveliest and most wide-ranging guide ever to Chicago's built environment", as the back cover says.)
          Given how Chicago, more than any other place in North America, has successfully exploited and marketed "architectural tourism", it is astounding that it took so long--a quarter century after its AIA counterpart for NYC--for a Chicago architectural guide with this kind of scope and authority to be published. That said, on very many levels AIA-Chicago is an exemplar of its type, and a model to be regarded. The time lag, in fact, may have been a blessing in disguise; it allowed the excessive fixation on the Chicago School-FLW-Mies-SOM canon to subside, and research on Chicago's "other architectures"--including landscape and urbanistic issues--to arise as a mature counterbalance. A comparison with the previous "standard guide", "Chicago's Famous Buildings", is instructive; while the earlier work presents the buildings as inert objects, AIA-Chicago presents and implies a fabric, and elicits an broad-ranging, knowledgable intimacy with said fabric. It's a true perambulator's guide. Like all great architectural guides--the Pevsners, AIA-NYC, even Buffalo's--AIA-Chicago can lead its user, including the armchair user, to feel as comfortable as a local...even, arguably and within reason, with regard to "dubious" neighbourhoods. And without the touristy need to fidget over restaurant and club listings, et al...

On many levels, AIA-Chicago sets an example to be followed, starting with physical format; a handy coat-pocket "longbook" a la AIA-NYC, with a relatively light grade of paper that doesn't scream out too-fashionable "architectural text" gravitas. It is well, cleanly designed, and thankfully (miraculously?) sidesteps the "Modern" quirks some think befit this town; it is clearly geared toward the broadly enlightened beholder, and not merely the architect. Nor is it unduly "biased" either toward or against the vaunted mythos of "Chicago Modern"; any real or implied criticism it directs at the product of recent times is, by 90s standards, perfectly normal and natural and more often than not justified. And to give added gravitas from diverse realms, not only was it sponsored by the local AIA (as indicated in the title) but the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. As the acknowledgments drive home, AIA-Chicago was a true team operation, with Sinkevitch as coordinator rather than over-dominant personality--supremely apropos in a city which has come to epitomize the revolutionary heroism of high-quality "anonymous" production, whether in architecture and planning, in industry, in retailing (think Sears and Montgomery Ward), et al.
          In a general way, AIA-Chicago follows Gebhardian lines, but with an interesting twist in that the more noteworthy buildings and districts are highlighted through mini-essays; these, as well as the chapter introductions, are given specific author credits (which reinforce the "team" aspect), and collectively portray an eclectic and sometimes quite luminous cast of willing contributors. (The apotheosis: Vincent Scully's magnificent waxing over the Harold Washington Library.) Yet even the uncredited capsule entries have zip and zest as they invite us on the ride through sundry Chicago neighbourhoods, parks, streets, boondoggles, and the like. (I'm most of all eternally captivated by the just-gentle-yet-biting-enough deflation of the 60s pretensions of SOM and their contemporaries at the University of Illinois at Chicago.) And of course, in case you come by air and have time to kill (as I did on New Year's Eve 1996), there's a chapter on O'Hare...

If there's a problem with AIA-Chicago (and it's a problem more for the Pevsner/White-Willensky diehards), it's that despite its breadth, it still refrains from "total coverage"; when one examines the key map, surprisingly large swaths of the city remain uncovered (though admittedly, many of these zones are not only anonymous but outright dangerous). Also, while Oak Park is (naturally) given its due, it's the only one of Chicago's suburbs to be covered--the truly appetite-whetted might wish for a "Greater Chicago" guide, even at the risk of AIA-NYC bulk (still quite managable, by the way).
          Curiously, AIA-Chicago hasn't been given the due it deserves. Perhaps it's a bit because of the crisis of confidence which blew a lot of the wind out of architecture's autonomous sails over the 80s and 90s (or else drove it into more arcanely theoretical realms); also, such enterprises as Richard Saul Wurman's Access Guide series, geared at the more general enlightened "style tourist", pilfered some of the traditional architectural guide's thunder. And in a pluralistic era when practically anything within built culture (or, for that matter, unbuilt culture) could in some way be cherished or reflected upon, and within a more thoroughgoing, multi-aspected context--a far cry from the prima donna days of the 1960s--the necessary selectivity of even the best and broadest guidebooks came to appear as paradoxically limiting. A shame, really--and it's a dilemma shared by preservationist organizations, also exponential victims of their own success. Perhaps we've just been conditioned to expect and love too much. (And the advent of electronic technology brings other questions in its turn.) But in a seemingly unwieldy multidisciplinary age such as ours, it presents new and useful challenges, including that of filling in whatever critical gaps still exist.


Pevsner and WPA

America: the first wave

AIA Guide to New York City

David Gebhard: America's Pevsner

Goldberger, Banham, and Moore (and more).

Buffalo: Vindication

Chicago: Maturity

The Buildings of the United States series

London + Vienna + Berlin = Cartesian Europe

One Vancouver, many Montréals

Toronto: Opportunity

omni forum