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From small-town America to the Empire State Building

Fifty years have tapped by since Radio City Music Hall kicked off in July 1933. And yet the claim that ''this is the future'' still applies to the hall and, more pointedly, to Rockefeller Center, in which it is embedded.

Deep in the midst of the depression, the builders were desperate enough for tenants to insert the oddity of a movie palace and an ice-skating rink in the center's midst. Construction manager John Todd knew that success depended on the structure having ''a personality of its own.''

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That personality - of a city both within a city and joined to it - is the reason the center still holds meaning for the present and future as much as for the past.

It explains, too, the absorbing nature of Walter Karp's The Center, A History and Guide to Rockefeller Center (Van Nostrand Reinhold, $19.50).

The team of architectural associates who designed the center (better known as architect Raymond Hood's group,) undertook an enterprise of perhaps more consequence for the last quarter of the 20th century than most efforts of our own day.

Then, as now, ''maximum income'' in New York meant tall buildings, ones rising in some splendor but in isolated splendor. Rockefeller Center was, among other things, a neighborhood in itself and concerned with connections to the city around it.

The book details what made the center work, from the aesthetic and functional (the multilevel arcades, the ornament, the art, the setbacks) to the human (the flourish of the architect with his walking stick, the quirks of committee design) to the commercial and mechanical (a special nozzle attachment developed just to clean the blinds).

One need not agree with Brendan Gill's introductory assessment that this is ''the indisputable true heart of New York City'' to find this recording of Rockefeller Center's particular pulse intriguing.

Going from the specific to the general, the heft of Architecture Today (Harry N. Abrams, $65) defies beach packers and hammock loungers alike as reading matter. But it is a worthwhile if weighty way to get an encyclopedic look at the field.

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In this study of contemporary design, author Charles Jencks tries to package pluralism. If modernism has served as a label for 500 years, perhaps, as Jencks suggests, he is justified in needing a chart of 30 variables to get a grasp of the fleeting temporal movements of our day. Trying to separate modernism, late-modernism, and post-modernism is fairly taxing.

His method can be comical, however. Take his attempt to dissect the humor of the movement: Modern architecture is ''anti-humor,'' he says; late-modern architecture is ''unintended humor, malapropism''; and post-modernism is ''pro-humor.'' Should one imagine straightfaced, wry, and guffawing edifices then?

For the rest, Jencks does manage to provide a cosmopolitan look at the field, to assemble some striking photographs, and to write lucid explanations even as he hammers rather loudly to fit these free-floating chambers into a single house of architecture.

Michael Graves, 1966 to 1981 (Rizzoli, $45) singles out one of the heroes in Jencks's pantheon. Views of Graves's projects - from the 1967 Hansellmann House in Fort Wayne, Ind., to the more recent Portland (Ore.) City Hall, and to Sunar showrooms around the country - fill a well-designed and clear, if not compelling , look at what Graves calls ''figurative architecture.''

While author Vincent Scully enthrones Graves's art as ''literary'' and calls such structures as the controversial city hall ''a triumph,'' the book makes the so-called incidentals of Graves's art - his rugs, drawings, a teapot, and furniture - more appealing. The strengths and charms of the artist-architect delight one more than the ponderously trend-setting structures of the builder-architect.




The days have passed when a tourist was more likely to shoot by a significant work of architecture than shoot at one with a camera. Guides to better buildings now provide do-it-yourself day-trippers with rambles through the entire Northeast or through individual small cities.

Foragers can choose from the exhaustive approach of G.E. Kidder Smith's solid three-volume The Architecture of the United States (Anchor Press, $14.95) or the standard Fodor's guides to New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, which now include architecture among the boutiques.

Smith assumes a sophistication in his reader to match his own. In speaking of the 60-year-old community at Radburn, N.J., for instance, he separates its architecture (''nonscintillating'') from its overall design or pattern (''planning enlightenment''). But even Fodor's now supposes that a phrase like ''stick rowhouses,'' used to describe the delights of San Francisco, won't scare the horses.

Similar aides to architecture buffs come from full books on specific places. Two examples are Architecture in Salem by Bryant F. Tolles with Carolyn K. Tolles (Essex Institute, $9.95) and a guide to Chicago's Public Sculpture (University of Chicago Press, $8.95).

Finally, the reissuance of the WPA guides to the towns and cities across America (Pantheon, $8.95 or $9.95, depending on the guide) attests to the phenomenon of scrutinizing our architecture more closely. Organized to take writers off the dole, the mammoth Roosevelt-era enterprise produced more than 300 detailed accounts of the architectural nooks and crannies across the country almost five decades ago.

To those of us who were enlisted to write new introductions, the guides, which cover New York, Boston, Washington, Detroit, and New Orleans, seem to offer amazingly accurate and lively descriptions of the places they surveyed in the '30s (the critique of the Empire State Building is at once precise and lyrical). They are a comparison point with what remains, and a reminder of an architectural appreciation lost for a generation but resurfacing in the cities and streets so nimbly recalled in these works.

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