Wolfe: tilting his lance at the glass box; From Bauhaus to Our House, by Tom Wolfe. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux. 143 pp. $10.95.
For the most part, architects should not be let near a typewriter. Their prose often ends up with an adjective to verb ratio of about 37 to 1, saying things such as ''the articulation of the perimeter of the perceived structures and its dialogue with the surrounding landscape.'' (Which, reportedly, prompted a Harvard logician to ask ''What did the landscape have to say?'') As Tom Wolfe's ''The Painted Word'' picked at the absurdities of modern painting, so ''From Bauhaus to Our House'' attacks the literary underpinnings of modern architecture, those theories of modernism by which buildings have been judged since Walter Gropius, the ''Silver Prince'' of the Bauhaus.
Wolfe's point in this splendidly witty little book is that modern architects design in code. A structure may be so beautiful it causes eyes to water and autos to stall; it may be so wonderfully functional people love to work or live in it, but if it wasn't designed according to an intellectual theory, well, how can we be expected to take it seriously? So beach houses sprout steel spaghetti intended to express ''inner structure,'' skyscrapers are paneled with acres of glass as an expression of purity, and ''decoration'' becomes a dirty word.
The granddaddy of all codes, of course, is the famous ''form is function.'' Honest material. Flat roofs. Clean right angles. As Wolfe points out, the Bauhaus theorists first began practicing their ''functional'' dictum in northern Europe.
''At this swath of the globe, with enough snow and rain to stop an army, as history has shown more than once, there was no such thing as a functional flat roof.''
Actually, claims Wolfe, function and form have little to do with it. Instead, the codes are just a mad race to be avant-garde, to be out front with this month's Ultimate Theory. ''The main thing was not to be caught designing something someone could point to, with a devastating sneer: ''How very bourgeois.'' Thus was born the Avenging Architect, with a vision so pure clients must not be allowed to muddy it.
''The client no longer counted for anything except the funding. If he were cooperative, not too much of a boor, it was acceptable to let him benefit from your new vision.''
There is no denying that Wolfe has landed a sitting duck target. One need only look at the World Trade Center in New York City or at Boston's Prudential Center to see how the glass box got out of hand. And the ''postmodern'' buildings now rising - the most famous being Philip Johnson's AT&T building in New York, which looks like a giant Chippendale highboy - often use decoration and for ironic, not aesthetic, purposes. After a few decades, the joke of a monstrous piece of furniture may wear thin.
It is easy to dismiss a host of modern homes as ''insecticide refineries.'' But Wolfe, while zapping architects for their literary silliness, never admits that some of their designs are at least interesting to look at. I.M. Pei's Hancock Tower in Boston is a marvelous piece of sculpture, when its windows aren't blowing out.
And if Philip Johnson and his buddies wanted to start some really good guerrilla warfare, they could argue that Tom Wolfe writes by theory. As a pioneer of the much-abused term ''new journalisn,'' Wolfe has pasted fictional techniques onto reporting, a synthesis that would cause many city desk editors to punch out their computer screens. He is also entering something of a postmodern phase himself, moving from decorative prose to cleaner, more functional sentences - who today would title a book, as Wolfe did in 1965, ''The Kandy-Kolored, Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby?''