Like a legendary movie star, Paris has been photographed so intensively that everyone feels they know her. So it's a shock to leaf through METROPOLITAN: A PORTRAIT OF PARIS (Phaidon/Chronicle: $49.95; 240 pp.) and see how much we've missed. Matthew Weinreb's photos capture the play of sunlight across noble facades, the symmetry of domes and vaults, the rich details that lurk, often unnoticed, on doors and balconies. He celebrates the city that was built by kings and presidents to glorify themselves and the state, and the vintage department stores, exhibition halls, and theaters that were built for and by the bourgeoisie. He focuses on details, and these have been brilliantly juxtaposed to suggest the stately rhythms of Parisian architecture. Brief notes by Fiona Biddulph provide a historical background, but the pictures tell their own story, leaping from one century or street to another, and back, to extol the beautiful and the exotic. Weinreb omits people, disorder, the ephemeral--everything extraneous to his theme--and achieves mesmerizing effects.
Prague is like a star who spent 50 years in seclusion before returning to her public: time-worn but still captivating. In PRAGUE: HIDDEN SPLENDORS \o7 (Flammarion/Abbeville: $35; 128 pp.\f7 ), photographer Pavel Stecha explores interiors that have miraculously survived the Nazi occupation and communist austerity.
Every era offers its treasures. Stone ribs snake like errant vines across the vaults of the medieval royal palace, and there are baroque churches and libraries as sumptuous as any in Vienna. Least familiar are the rooms designed just before and after the Czechs achieved independence; marvels of art nouveau, Cubism, and a sensual brand of minimalism. It's hard to imagine the Marxist-Leninist Institute housed amid the luxurious cabinets and marble veneers of the Villa Muller, or baggy-suited apparatchiks buying their shirts in the sybaritic Adam shop, both designed by Adolf Loos, the modernist who declared that "ornament is crime."
"Places are spaces that you can remember, that you can care about and make a part of your lives," wrote Donlyn Lyndon and the late Charles W. Moore in their introduction to CHAMBERS FOR A MEMORY PALACE \o7 (The MIT Press: $29.95; 322 pp.\f7 ). These two architects, friends and former partners, exchange letters and sketches of places that have impressed them around the world. They dismiss the illusions of virtual reality, "dislodged from the earth and inhabited by electronic speculations. We intend to remain unabashedly earthbound, ready to spend our limited days imagining palpable places, places that people can reach on their feet and fill with their presence."
These letters explore sweeping vistas and telling details, the variety of built forms and the complexities of enclosed space. Compact and elegant, "Chambers for a Memory Palace" is a perfect companion for the armchair traveler. But the authors have a loftier goal. "Places that are memorable are necessary to the good conduct of our lives," they write. "We need to think about where we are and what is unique and special about our surroundings so that we can better understand ourselves and how we relate to others . . . Our purpose in writing this book is to help make real places more memorable."