A literate, image-rich guide to city

Given the size, diversity and – yes – appeal of Athens, one almost has to justify mentioning, much less recommending, another picture book on Greece’s capital. Yet «Athens: Scenes from a Capital City» stands out as a visual delight with interwoven textual offerings and wide coverage in an appealingly tight package of under 100 pages. This work, produced by Editions Millet, brings together the work of two talented individuals, architectural photographer John Cleave and writer Nikos Vatopoulos, who covers Athenian culture for Kathimerini, with Vivienne Nilan’s translation into English enlivening it all. The centerpiece illustrations are computer-derived, drawn from photographs that give a soothing yet sharp watercolor-like touch. Each is briefly annotated in attractive if small cursive print. Cleave’s method was tested earlier in a book on Washington DC’s handsome buildings; this second such work vividly portrays a city he has known for 30 years. The book aims to provide «a portrait of the many faces of Athens,» with over 180 illustrations ranging from Kifissia to Glyfada, but which focus, naturally, on the historic and cultural center – the scene, according to Vatopoulos’s erudite introduction, of a «spectacular» transformation since the 1950s. The modern city has but a short history in contrast with its timeless antiquities, imparting a «fascinating fusion» that often poses as urban chaos. He underscores the revitalization theme, even in a city «still struggling with itself» and its relentless changes. The book moves from the center and old town to Lycabettus and neighborhoods, and finally, to outer Athens. It offers striking images of landmark structures (the Grande Bretagne, ministries, banks), squares, churches and picturesque ruins. Quirky touches will also delight (the signposted Eleftheriou Venizelou St, which everybody calls Panepistimiou, is «the street that isn’t»). New additions like Calatrava-designed Olympic projects also feature. Major buildings are elaborated more fully at the end.