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Compact companions for city travelling

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City Architecture Guides - Bath by Thom Gorst; Istanbul by Christa Beck and Christiane Forsting; Las Vegas by Frances Anderton and John Chase; Paris by Barbara-Ann Campbell; San Francisco by Peter Lloyd; Sydney by Francesca Morrison ellipsis, 1998. Each approx 312pp. £6.95

There are two reasons to buy guidebooks. One is to help maximise the pleasure and minimise the pain of travel. The other is to experience those pleasures and pains vicariously, without incurring the cost and inconvenience of real travel. A few years ago, at the cash registers in bookshops, appeared models of the Canary Wharf tower. And at the bottom of these models you could pull out a slot and release a small, square book - Samantha Hardingham's guide to recent architecture in London.

The success of this format encouraged the publisher, now called 'ellipsis', to repeat it. England received the squared treatment, then Prague and several more. Bath, Istanbul, Las Vegas, Paris, San Francisco and Sydney are the latest victims. It is an eclectic mix, part American tourist destination, part Olympic fever, and part where groovy design tutors take their students on field trips. But one suspects that the real motor is where they can find an author.

So Thom Gorst, denizen of Bath's school of architecture, takes his binoculars and compass around that city; Anglo-Australian architect Francesca Morrison does Sydney and Peter Lloyd San Francisco; Barbara-Ann Campbell and Frances Anderton tackle Paris and Las Vegas respectively, the latter with John Chase. Bearing out the opportunism latent in these appointments, the authors of Istanbul, Christa Beck and Christiane Forsting, thank Mr and Mrs Said Kuran, 'who made the book possible and made our stay a very special experience'.

It makes sense to use authors who have local connections. More serious is the implicit assumption that this format is equally applicable to any city. Short introductions to buildings are inevitable in guidebooks, but some are more flexible than a photograph on the right-hand page with a paragraph of commentary opposite. Occasionally a building has two spreads, but repeating the format on the second almost makes one think it refers to another building. Such an anomaly applies to Hagia Sophia which, in its 1500-year life, has accommodated the functions of church, mosque and museum.

The great advantage of slide shows, though, which these books come to resemble, is the possiblity of eccentricity. There is no point in trying to make a guide book definitive; cities, with the possible exception of ones like Bath, do not submit to such rigidity. But a memorably skew comment here, or asinine judgement there, engage the reader far more than pious accuracy. I will always remember Ruskin's Stones of Venice more for its contemptuous dismissal of a spectacular Renaissance palace as 'devoid of interest' than its overhyped chapter 'On the Nature of Gothic'.

Campbell's introduction is one of the most perceptive comments on Paris I have read. Her inclusion of entries on La Twingo (a motor car), street markets and tree gratings is not just gratifyingly eccentric, it confirms a sensibility to what the city really is. Her building descriptions do not always match this promise, but her approach stretches the format without breaking it.

Istanbul and Sydney I found less successful. Both cities have wonderful natural settings and these guides' greatest drawback is that they almost completely ignore geography and topography. Even though the descriptions are tightly and informatively written, I will want something more when I visit. However, they are not as extreme as Lloyd in San Francisco, who writes the city 'must be one of the most beautiful in the world', but fails to give us even the schematic diagrams which the others include. Somehow the lack of such information in Las Vegas is not so troubling, and appropriately, it is the only one to use colour.

Each reader will find a personal value in these guides, depending on interest and experience, as well as the nature of the cities themselves. Some are aides-memoire, some tasters, and Bath might even be an adequate guide for a first visit. Except that you would have to stomach Gorst's sanctimonious reminder that eighteenth-century social history is not only squares and crescents, but also prostitutes and artisans. This seems to miss the point. We go visiting partly to indulge in escapism. And these guides lend themselves to cheerful descriptions, and grey, impecunious evenings in winter when you wish you were somewhere else.

Jeremy Melvin is an architectural writer and teacher

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