Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Architecture Guides & the Urban Sketcher

Ever felt overwhelmed with everything around you while you're Urban Sketching? Or maybe despite everything going on around you, you can't seem to see a story in your surroundings?

When I'm stuck at either of these extremes I find that an architecture guide can change what I see. Whether by focusing in my attention like a microscope, or giving me a sense of something larger like a telescope, the context these guides provide revitalize the city to me.

Ooooh, there's a helicopter landing on that building!
Chicago offers several guided architecture tours that walk, ride, kayak or segway around the city. These options can be rich with hidden stories about the city, but as a part of a group, you can't stop and sketch whenever you like.

Thankfully there are other great options!

There are always standard tourist guide books. These books are full of fun stories about people and places in the city to jog your creative juices, but to those who have been in the city a while or just want something a little off the beaten trail this might not be best. There are also books like Walking Chicago that offer routes in a given neighborhood. Sometimes themes emerge on a given route and you realize you've been walking by 4 first attempts at various architectural elements for months without knowing. Another publisher offers 50 of these routes on individual index cards – perfect to tuck into a sketch kit.  But be warned, these haven't been updated in a few years so restaurants have changed! Though I have not personally tried their tours, I've heard good things about Evisitorguide.com and the free tour maps and information you can download from their website. Of course there are always things that are left out from these books (and website), but they can add a lot of fun to your sketch outings!

The problem with books for the Urban Sketcher is that they can be heavy and a pain to carry with you at all times. Thankfully, there are multiple apps for that!

Several of the apps for sale look great, but the only app I've tried is a free one called 312 Go! With locations services turned on on your smart phone, the app will point out interesting things around you. The narrator will say things like "On your left is The Rookery…" then go on to tell you fun tidbits about the place. Using this app with headphones also helps prevent unwanted conversation with by-standers while giving you an inside scoop on the stories around you.

Looking to try one of these out? Itching to keep practicing the techniques you learned this summer? Perfect timing! October 17th-18th is Chicago's Annual Open House Chicago, where great buildings will be open to the public free of charge. Last year USK Chicago made it into several hard-to-visit buildings during the event, I can't wait to see where you all go!

Have you ever used architecture guides to help your sketching in Chicago? How about when you're in other cities? What other tools do you use to help you "see" your surroundings again?


  1. Allana, I really like this post and a super-good topic. My all time favorite is Google maps in the hybrid mode (where you can see the street names along with a 3D aerial view. It's super cool when skyscrapers disappear when you do a perspective fly by as if you have Superman's x-ray vision. I scouted out sketch locations for the Urban Sketchers Chicago Sketch Seminar in this way.

    1. That's a great idea, Wes! I haven't played with the hybrid mode before, but that certainly sounds like something worth doing on chilly October evenings!

  2. Another resource I like is something called "City Walks: Chicago." It is a box of cards and each card offers a different walking tour with historical facts about the neighborhood you are walking. I saw that Andrew Banks picked this up once and I put it on my Christmas list right away. There is also a phone app version in iTunes. http://www.chroniclebooks.com/titles/city-walks-chicago.html


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