An architectural guide captures Chicago’s beauty and expanse

We’ve all had this experience of living in such a diverse and stylish city: we walk down a street in Chicago, spy on something, and say, “What is that building?”

Or to be more precise, we really say: “This building is magnificent. What is his story ? Or maybe, “That thing’s not my cup of tea.” But that’s unusual. What is his story ?

Mr. Google is ready for a quick response. But if you want a deeper dive, a concise consideration of a building’s aesthetic and context, one of the main sources has been the “AIA Guide to Chicago.” Its fourth edition, the first since 2014, is now out and it’s a re-polished gem.

AIA refers to the American Institute of Architects, which has a branch in Chicago. The institute held a convention in Chicago last month and usually releases a new guide when it comes back every few years. “I never stop working on it,” said Laurie McGovern Petersen, the book’s editor and freelance writer involved since the first edition in 1993. That’s when I start a new file for the next edition.

She must too, as the 648-page book covers nearly 2,000 sites. New constructions and changes in use mean that information must be constantly updated. Each edition increases by around 10%, and while the new version isn’t exactly svelte, it’s portable enough to pack into a backpack for a neighborhood tour. The chapters are organized by city area, with maps highlighting each site by number. “Chicago” in this book means exactly that. It covers the city proper, with a jaunt to Oak Park. Sorry, Evanston.

The cover of the fourth edition of the “AIA Guide to Chicago”.

University of Illinois Press

Petersen said she was most proud of the book’s new themes. There are more entrances from neighborhoods and appreciation of women architects and minorities. She added a 32-page insert of color photographs covering styles and subjects such as Art Deco, modernism and quintessential Chicago housing types. Captions indicate where to go in the book for more information. Petersen emphasizes the distinction in unexpected places. The book “shows things like power stations, country houses and CTA stations that you wouldn’t think were delicious but are,” she said. Recent favorites include new libraries that combine this function with affordable housing.

For this endeavor, Petersen relies on dozens of contributors, especially founding editor Alice Sinkevitch. The inscriptions for the buildings reflect a “chorus of voices”, said Petersen, and the fourth edition benefits from photography by Eric Allix Rogers, with cover shot by Tom Rossiter that combines the splendor of downtown with the skyline of the piece. Contributors include Lee Bey of the Sun-Times. Published by University of Illinois Press, the book sells for $42.95, $14.95 as an e-book.

Featured newcomers include architect Jeanne Gang’s St. Regis Tower, a towering presence near the lakefront and a building that, from certain angles, appears to be falling from the sky. The 2020 building is the successor to 2009’s Gang’s Aqua Tower, with balconies that appear to undulate. “It is poetic justice that [St. Regis] is so visible, because Aqua is so surrounded now by other buildings, that it’s hard to see,” Petersen said.

Less monumental works also deserve their due, such as the imaginative rehabilitations of Cook County Hospital, artist Theaster Gates’ conversion of a former bank on the south side into a cultural center and a former fire station on the south side. north now dedicated to Chicago filmmakers.

The format allows for feedback on whether a design is successful, but reviews are measured and not random. “I hope people will read a description of a building that they might have called ugly. They’ll get a description of the ins and outs of the design and maybe appreciate it more,” Petersen said.

She also said the book draws attention to post-WWII designs that were once ignored but are gaining admirers as they age. For older structures, the book pairs well with the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, an unusual effort of the 1980s and 1990s in which city hall staffers, without the benefit of the internet, moved block by block to record the interesting buildings. They found about 17,000, neglecting structures then deemed too new to merit inclusion. Their old findings are still available online, but the effort is unfortunately exceeded. Conservationists have complained about this, but with the demands placed on the city government, it might be too much to ask for a state-funded repeat. Perhaps the “AIA Guide to Chicago” can inspire some new thinking.

Consider this polite advice for any enterprising architectural school or club, or foundation, which can muster capable volunteers for public service. Hello interns?

The old fire hall at 5720 N. Ridge Ave.  was transformed into a center for Chicago filmmakers.

The old fire hall at 5720 N. Ridge Ave. was transformed into a center for Chicago filmmakers.

This Chatham house by architect John Moutoussamy dates from 1954. With its flat roof, it is an example of the international style.

This Chatham house by architect John Moutoussamy dates from 1954. With its flat roof, it is an example of the international style.

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