Book Review: Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture (3rd ed.)

If you own the 2nd Edition of the best-selling, oh-so-portable Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture (2004), you won’t be surprised that there is a new, updated version this year.  Like the AIA Guide to Chicago, ten years since the last edition is an incredibly long time in Chicago architecture.  While the A.I.A. guide’s last edition had very little about Millennium Park and rectified that gap in the latest edition, the 2ndedition of The Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture included Pritzker and Harris Pavilions back when all was new.  But Aqua and Trump Tower were yet to come.

The Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture (third edition)

The Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture (third edition)

If you don’t own The Pocket Guide, this brand new edition is highly recommended.  The book, not intended to be encyclopedic, features 100 highlights of Chicago architecture, focusing on the city’s central area.  Each building has a one-page entry with a fine line drawing by John DeSalvo, architect and professor at IIT.  Written by Judith Paine McBrien, author of the Pocket Guide to Los Angeles Architecture and the Pocket Guide to Miami Architecture, each Chicago building entry is a clear, intelligent summary of the structure’s history, details, and significance.

McBrien is the director and producer of the Archimedia Workshop in Chicago, and the director of the Daniel Burnham Film Project. She has written, directed and produced programs about architecture, history, and urban design for public television and arts and environmental organizations, including 2010’s Make No Little Plans: Daniel Burnham and the American City, a film exploring the life of visionary architect and city planner Daniel Burnham.  McBrien recently received fellowships to develop a book about Burnham.

The Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture is divided up into four main sections, each introduced with a map and building list: Michigan Avenue (16th Street to Oak Street), The Loop (including about a dozen buildings outside of the Loop proper), The Riverfront (mostly main branch, with highlights of north and south branches), and Campus Architecture (includes IIT, University of Chicago and a couple of other buildings).  A glossary of architectural terms follows, along with an index of architects and their included works.

The 3rd edition emphasizes new design more than ever, including Jeanne Gang and recent structures on Chicago’s university campuses.  While the Loop section remains virtually unchanged (except for the “Willis” addition to the Sears Tower entry), the Michigan Avenue section is updated with a handful of new buildings: Columbia College Chicago Media Production Center (Studio Gang), Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, Aqua (Gang), 600 North Fairbanks (Jahn), and the Poetry Foundation building.  Gone is the Terra Museum of American Art which closed in 2004 and was demolished in 2008.

The Riverfront section remains virtually the same except for the addition of Trump Tower, while the Campus Architecture section adds another handful of new buildings, including the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts and Mansueto Library.

The Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture suffers a few limitations.  First is the scope of the buildings chosen; after all, the South Loop and Gold Coast neighborhoods, Museum Campus, and the Prairie Avenue Historic District with all of their architectural richness are not included, even though more far-flung locations are indeed listed.  But, it must be said, while the 3rd edition added a mere 15 pages over the previous edition, adding the above areas would likely make the book twice as long.

Second is the inclusion of the Riverfront section as one of the self-guided routes. It is actually not easily done as a self-walking tour, except in parts.  Perhaps specifying that this route is best done by boat would be helpful.

The most uneven aspect of the Pocket Guide is in its naming convention.  A thorn in the side of all Chicago architecture aficionados and tour guides is indeed the constantly-changing building names.  One approach is to stick with the original, historic, mostly-agreed upon building names (Carson Pirie Scott Store instead of Sullivan Center).  Another view is to keep up with the latest names (35 East Wacker instead of Jeweler’s Building).  The Pocket Guide does a little of both, and even – puzzlingly – goes with some interim names that are neither historic nor current.  It clarifies some entries’ names, but not others.  Perhaps for most users of the book simply out exploring the city, this doesn’t matter much.  But for those using the guide as an architectural resource, this is a weakness.

But overall, the Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture is a smart little book with succinct descriptions, clear illustrations and maps, and a balanced emphasis on both Chicago’s historic architectural legacy and its most exciting new structures.

More information

  • Pocket Guide to Chicago Architecture, 3rd Edition, 2014
  • W.W. Norton, New York and London
  • Judith Paine McBrien
  • Illustrations: Jon F. DeSalvo
  • Available at (unencumbered link),, and Indigo/Chapters. But it's better if you get it from one of the city's remaining actual bookstores like Powell's or After Words.

Author: Wendy Bright

Wendy Bright is a Rogers Park architectural historian and the curator of the History of a House Museum. She has a masters in art history and is an avid photographer.

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