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Frivolity in design; Walking The Border Between Absurd and Inconsequential

The ''little boxes'' still sit on the hillsides, but more and more of their sequels are breaking out of the shape.

The one-size-fits-all kind of design that once filled the American landscape has diversified. ''Calculated uncertainty,'' one professional magazine describes the trend. Geometry askew, the new architecture fractures the box.

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A less-charitable observer, architectural historian Reynar Banham, describes the free-form housing he observed issuing out of southern California as ''wacky-tacky.'' The phrase refers to forms and surfaces that were eccentric in the extreme, improvisational, and unedited, at least in their looks.

The supreme iconoclast of the new structures and textures, for instance, created his dream house out of corrugated steel, security fence, and plywood.

Photos of Frank Gehry's private home - all elbowing angles, jarring fence, projecting shafts - seem to show cause for the much-reported neighborhood hostility to the Venice, Calif., structure.

Here was a building that was, to quote still another song, ''meaner than a junkyard dog,'' a structure made of low-down materials gnawing at a nice environment.

On location, however, the look and feel are not the same. In a sense, the home of the West Coast founder of ''California Crazy'' is more friendly than fierce, more commodious than abrasive.

If the structure on Gehry's suburban lot is surreal, ''like a cube was trapped in there,'' the architect says, it is again extremely calculated.

Taking a California bungalow, the architect practiced his own kind of preservation. That is, he ''wrapped'' the old staple structure in corrugated steel and plywood, leaving 12 feet between the materials in some places, yet honoring the conventions of the plot and framing the prize tree on the site.

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Like his cardboard furniture (also exhibited at the Max Protetch Gallery this summer in New York and traveling this fall under the title ''Rough Edges''), Gehry's jarring surfaces are precise in the extreme: The reflection seen in the nighttime black of a corner window was reckoned at a precise angle to mirror that portion of the room which the architect wanted to see double.

Gehry is not alone as either originator or executor of surprise elements and ordinary materials twisted and convoluted into an unpredictable form.

The notion of ''complexity and contradiction'' in architecture was first codified by Venturi and Rauch. Now, however, there is super-complexity and contradictions that re-contradict themselves and accost the eye (''I always start with a fantasy,'' Gehry says).

Venturi and Rauch startled in a subtle fashion: The giant size of one window, the peculiar placement of a door, the use of vernacular stuffs for a surface, were more in-joke than flagrant form setting.

Meanwhile, parallel buildings, such as the Fisher House and other off-cast architecture, marked the southern California scene in a flamboyant fashion.

Similarly, his use of new parts has no novelty. In Walter Gropius's first home in America after World War II, the late director of the Bauhaus brought modernist notions of design - and parts picked from a Sears, Roebuck catalog.

Nonetheless, Gehry and other adherents to the trend toward deliberately banal stuffs and an architecture of the cheap, pickup materials still further outside the approved range; his prefabricated parts, plywood, and corrugated metal, mimic the industrial and commercial landscape to good, but sometimes ill, effect.

Part of such play with conventional structures stems from the rejection of the ''little boxes'' of early modernism and a wish to rethink such standard segments of the home as wall or window.

The Cooper Union's show of ''Window Room Furniture'' projects last winter provided one other example. Now listed in catalog form, they suggest to the larger public that:

''A room need not be a room, nor a window a window, nor a chair a chair.''

In the words of Cooper Union president Bill N. Lacy: ''We are finding the physical circumstances of our existence are, if not irrelevant, then certainly susceptible of creative responses beyond counting or understanding.''

We have not heretofore tried to reshape rooms and windows, he wrote, as the kind of public exercise seen in the strange concoctions submitted there.

An element of defiance entered these designs. Flouting conventions, the architects teased the right-angle world. ''The First Curtain Wall Building (New York 1852)'' took the phrase that describes the gridded high-rise and shows a literally curtained building.

The more outrageous elements of the newly humorous architecture came elsewhere, though, and earlier in commissions for the Best Company. Once and former sculptor James Wines created facades that looked as if they were crumbling ruins or peeling walls for the showrooms of the Richmond-based organization.

Wines's latest design for his own group, SITES, shows a high-rise made of boxes, each one boasting a suburban house on a lot piled high up into the sky.

Stanley Tigerman, another arch exponent of the rib-tickling element of this ''architecture run amok,'' is prankish to the point of irresponsibility, critics claim.

His autobiography, ''Versus,'' just published by Rizzoli, was sent out under the title ''Post-Modern Architecture Is a Jewish Movement'' - now one of the chapter headings.

Sometimes frisky, sometimes ponderous, the prose and buildings match, but some designs, including a canine-faced facade for a veterinary hospital, the Anti-Cruelty Society, are, one might say, waggishly charming.

The border between the divinely absurd and the absurdly inconsequential is difficult to decipher, to be sure.

When a Chicago colleague of Tigerman's, Thomas Beeby, assigned ''A Center for the Study of Comparative Religion for Mercea Eliade'' as a project for Harvard students, some wondered whether a visionary retreat for the author of ''The Sacred and the Profane'' provided as much in the way of reality training.

Whether Levittown will move over, only to have Sesame Street silliness fill our Main Street architecture, also bothers some. One can fret that function is almost irrelevant to the antics of some of the new design.

It's a worry, certainly. But for the time being - for this viewer, anyway - it seems no sacrifice to tolerate even some frivolity to laugh one's way out of the box.

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