Architecture’s a hot topic in Chicago right now–and vice versa. The current issue of the trade journal Architectural Record is dedicated to the city’s revival, with nods to Soldier Field, Millennium Park, Koolhaas and Jahn’s new IIT campus, and Ralph Johnson’s Skybridge development in Greektown, plus an overview of hot younger architects, including Jeanne Gang, Doug Garofalo, Darryl Crosby, and Melinda Palmore. This weekend the sixth annual Great Chicago Places and Spaces offers more than 130 free architectural tours of the city (see sidebar below for listings). And next month the American Institute of Architects will hold its yearly convention in Chicago for the first time in over a decade.

To stay on top of the action, a good guidebook is a must, and Chicagoans are lucky enough to have their choice of two, Chicago’s Famous Buildings and the AIA Guide to Chicago, both of which have been revised recently. The former was first published in 1965 by the newly created Chicago Landmark Commission as a guide to the city’s first 39 official landmark buildings and other notable structures. (That 20 of them have since been demolished shows how anemic the spirit of conservation still was at the time.) The fifth edition, edited by Franz Schulz and Kevin Harrington, came out last year and is more than a hundred pages longer than the original. The AIA Guide to Chicago, edited by Alice Sinkevitch, was first published in 1993–the last year the AIA held its convention here–and it’s been specially revamped for the return of the conference this summer.

The two books are different in format. At 350 pages, CFB is more compact but covers fewer buildings–about 150 in total. The 560-page AIA Guide covers more than 1,000, most with a short paragraph and many with a picture, though dozens of the city’s most significant structures get extended essays. Both contain up-to-date information on new landmarks like Millennium Park and Erie on the Park, and both provide extensive coverage of Oak Park–but only CFB covers other suburbs.

While CFB is more democratic in spirit–it includes the Loop el, which is certainly famous if hardly a building–it’s also more of a chore to read. The prose is pitched to a general audience, but it’s dry as dust. The essays in the AIA Guide beat CFB almost every time. Compare the books’ respective essays on Carl Schurz High School on Milwaukee Avenue in Irving Park. CFB tells us that the building was designed by Dwight Perkins, uses colorful materials and “interlocking forms” (twice in an essay of fewer than 150 words), and incorporates influences from northern Europe (not defined). The AIA Guide’s essay, admittedly three times as long, includes most of the same details, but brings the building to life with the story of Jane Addams’s role in commissioning the structure and the way its design represented a huge advance over the dark, prisonlike schools of the time. CFB’s entry for Burnham and Root’s Monadnock Building at Jackson and Dearborn lists the names of all four of its sections and situates them geographically, but other than citing its “bold simplicity” makes no reference to its lack of ornamentation, which was revolutionary for the 1890s.

The larger AIA Guide can seem a bit overwhelming (“Too many buildings!” was the reaction of a Seattle architect visiting the city last month) but the prose is lively enough to encourage sustained reading. Perry R. Duis’s introduction provides a great overview of the history of Chicago and its architecture in just 20 pages, and Jack Hartray’s critique of the concrete gulag that is River North is right on the mark.

CFB is divided into three sections–one for the city center, one for the neighborhoods, and one for the suburbs–and contains ten maps. The AIA Guide is divided into seven geographic sections and has 34 maps, including some that pinpoint the graves of the famous in Graceland, Rosehill, and Oak Woods cemeteries.

At $14, CFB is the economical choice: the AIA Guide costs $30. And even if it’s a drag to read, the smaller book is packed with photographs. The AIA Guide has photos for fewer than a third of its entries.

Or maybe you want to trade up to John Zukowsky’s new Masterpieces of Chicago Architecture, hitting the shelves this month. The book is a career valedictory for Zukowsky, who’s stepping down after 26 years as the Art Institute’s architectural curator. Although its coffee-table bulk makes it even less practical than the AIA Guide as a portable reference, its more than 100 color photographs are worth the proverbial 1,000 words apiece. Its list price is $65.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.