It's a small world after all

The architectural guides beloved of anoraks and artisans offer you the world in your pocket. By Jay Merrick

A barely noticed publishing sensation is under way opposite a fur trader and a cardboard merchant in a suitably manky backstreet in the City of London. The delightful ingots of prose and photographs emanating from the floor above the fusty rooms of the Alpine Club have tapped a thoroughly unexpected market which thinks that less - much, much less - is more.

The publisher, Ellipsis, has discovered that architecture is food and drink for an army of commoner aesthetes (think of them as the Mr Pollys and Leonard Basts of the Corbusier Light Infantry) rather than the exclusive preserve of Rotring penpushers and readers of Architect's Journal agonising over earth-shattering questions such as whether the new British Library is, or is not, a brick shithouse.

In the past five years, Ellipsis has published 18 palm-sized city architectural guides and sold the best part of 250,000 of them at just under pounds 6 a throw, two-thirds of them to non-architects. It's an extraordinary return from a single bright idea that originally sought only to be a nice little earner among British architectural students, but which then grew like Topsy into a phenomenon that will hit the 25-edition mark by the end of this year.

The first guide, penned by Samantha Hardingham during her final year at London's Architectural Association (AA), set the format for a quart- into-pint-pot kind of perfection: 30,000 words and photographs of more than 140 buildings - most of modern vintage - crammed into a spice box of ideas and images that very rapidly sold 45,000 copies. "As soon as we started getting the proofs we just felt it was going to be successful," said co-founder Tom Neville. `It was an attractive little thing, substantial but miniaturised, and it sold brilliantly."

But the editions that have followed are more than "attractive little things". Their editorial recipe and the crisply minimal design - by Neville's partner Jonathan Moberly - are certainly innovative, yet there is something more at play here. The very feel of them in the hand (the stiff paper covers against the palm, the way the semi-coated pages riffle delicately away from the thumb) gives them a peculiar tactile dimension that whispers of secret vice. Flicking through the guides gives the same kind of obscure pleasure as that pert little nup sound made when a triangle of chocolate is snapped off a Toblerone bar.

It is as if, in handling and poring over the guides, one becomes an absentee master of Budapest or Bath or Istanbul by virtue of a literal grip on the recent architecture of these and many other cities. These guides are a kind of sophisticated peepshow, an attempt to deliver the full but anally retentive Monty about the best and worst of more than 2,000 buildings and architectural objects in a form that is, as Neville put it, free of "farty architectural discourse".

Out go "phenomenally boring books that just describe buildings", along with any whiff of homogenizing editorial policy; in comes attitude, typically from the notebooks and word processors of gifted student architects or the recently qualified. After the publication of the London architecture guide, "the word spread and people came to see us". Many were from the AA where, very conveniently as far as Neville and Moberly were concerned, a significant percentage of students were foreign and therefore potential overseas correspondents.

This ad hoc approach has paid off in spades: each city guide possesses a quite distinct flavour and it is highly enjoyable to track each author's agenda and quirkery. Sometimes, for example, the writing is both luscious and informative. In describing Jean Nouvel's Institut du Monde Arab in Paris, Barbara-Ann Campbell, writes of "Aladdin's cave treasures that wink at magpie-eyed children, while the auditorium has a polished bitumen floor and 360 extremely comfortable seats from the standard Renault car range". The building's stunning south facade carries photosensors that regulate the passage of light "like the irises of a million eyes".

There are witty surprises all the way: a killingly funny shot by the excellent series photographer Keith Collie of a smiling, supremely elegant and attractive lady wearing a full-length camel-hair coat, about to enter a Decaux automatic public convenience in Paris; chairs by Philippe Starck in the Parc de la Villette, and a question posed by the designer: "Do inanimate objects have a soul?" (Um, they do if they're shoes, Phil.)

Sometimes the agenda of the authors produces squirm-inducing pronouncements. Peter Lloyd, who wrote the San Francisco guide, describes a building by Stanley Saitowitz in "a quiet and enjoyably dingy street" as being "too close to perfection" because `it lacks the ugly beauty of the nearby warehouses". This piercing condescension concludes with the observation that the back of the building in question "is much uglier and much more likeable".

If there is a star performer it is probably Ingerid Helsing Almass, whose revelations about both the modern architecture of Vienna and the forces that conspire to control it deliver a brilliant read full of clues, half- leads and tense mini-interviews with architects, which combine to come off the page like a disjointed Wim Wenders narrative. One almost expects to see part of a dead body in a dark corner of one of the photographs.

And if there were a stiff tucked away (I really must look again with a suitably Holmesian magnifying glass), it would undoubtedly be the death- clenched remains of a certain Professor Hundterwasser, whose highly decorated "ecological" home is described thus by Almass: "Hundterwasser's remedial suggestions (`Once you make the windows dance by designing each one differently, you give the building a chance to recover.') are limited to the surface, but presented with all the fervour of a 19th-century quack flogging his bottles of coloured horsepiss as a miracle cure for all diseases." Almass is at it again on page 170, where her description of a housing terrace begins: "Life does not have to be sweet. There is depression, there is depravity, there is death. But to build like this ..." Her entry for the massive and gaudy Fernwarme complex comprises three lacerating words: "A painted shed."

Ultimately, these guides are seductive and collectable because of the sheer range of buildings and objects singled out for scrutiny. A quick lucky dip might, for example, produce two gems from Istanbul - the striking Gon leather factory and Ataturk's summer residence (which might almost be imagined sloshing around on its stilts just offshore at Eastbourne) - buddying up to the De La Warr pavilion in Sussex; the interior of the noirish Cypress Club in San Francisco, a bad trip in which Disney meets Signalman Freud; and, in the Sydney volume, the pluperfect treehouse designed by Peter Stutchbury at Pittwater and the precariously stilted walkway of Wylie's Baths, propped up against Coogee cliffs.

Even the plug-uglies are rooted out for contrast. Three, at the very least, queue up to share the rancid biscuit: the Tercuman newspaper offices in Istanbul, whose repellent brute ugliness is surprisingly condoned by Christa Beck and Christiane Forsting because it is "a successfully contemporary interpretation of the classical language"; the Bibliotheque de France, whose massively expensive "bookend" repositories stand like four round- shouldered dullards wondering where the next Special Brew is coming from; and the stunningly vile Southgate shopping centre at Bath, described, in an extraordinary piece of dissembling, as "neo-sub-Georgian".

The next tranche of city guides includes coverage of Athens, where Ellipsis's scribe Ericca Protestou has already been threatened with physical violence for daring to dislike certain buildings in a country in which, according to Neville, "there's no cultural criticism at all." Tina Muwanga, the AA-trained Ugandan author of the South Africa guide, had to work with an escort. In Moscow, Maria Kiernan was chased away from the vicinity of KGB headquarters "by men in long coats" for daring to sketch it.

For Ellipsis, these rich and profitably updatable pickings are just what Mr Polly and Mr Bast like for their right and proper edification, be it ever so 'umble. And they, and tens of thousands of those architect johnnies, can brace themselves for a new series from Messrs Neville and Moberly. Called A History of Architecture, this 25-volume partwork will be released in fistfuls of five at a time, beginning in May. The minuscule proofs are dinkily enchanting.

And one more thing. Should Mr Polly and Mr Bast wish to conflate the questions of victuals and architecture, they will find yet another tasty dainty on the shelves of their favourite booksellers this spring. Eating London will take a sharp and witty look at the design of dozens of restaurants and cafes in the capital. "It will be very successful," said Neville matter- of- factly. "We've got fantastic photography."

If this final gobbet of confidence seems just too hog-boltingly insouciant to swallow, it isn't, because the course of even the shrewdest publishing venture never quite runs true. Ellipsis has just completed two guides on Egypt, one covering Islamic Cairo, the other illustrating a Pharaonic trip down the Nile. There is no truth in the rumour that the latter will be called Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle.

Ellipsis, tel 0171-739 3157; email @ellipsis.co.uk; internet address http://www.ellipsis.com

Institut du Monde Arabe by Jean Nouvel, Paris. (Photogrpah: Keith Collie)

Left, Faith's house, San Francisco. Right, ING Bank and offices, Meccanno. (Photographs: Keith Collie)

Decaux public lavatory, Paris. (Photo: Andres F Atela)

Left, chairs by Phillipe Starck in Parc de la Villette, Paris. (Photograph: Keith Collie)

Main picture, the Louvre Pyramid, Paris. (Photograph: Barbara-Ann Campbell)

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