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A blueprint of New York architecture on the cusp of modernity

New York, 1930, by Robert M. Stern. New York: Rizzoli. 847 pp. $75. ``My lost city, bloated, glutted, stuffed with cake and circuses,'' wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, and what can that surfeit of confections be but New York? A city that never sleeps and never ages; a city where buildings ``are scrapped before rust can start,'' as one architecture magazine put it; the ``lighthouse on the whole world.'' Here we have that New York between the wars - the architecture, or, more fully, the architectural life of New York in the '20s and '30s, encased in a reference book big enough to break the postal scale.

``New York, 1930,'' the second in a series documenting ``architecture and urbanism,'' flickers, pans, dances, and details that landscape. Its three authors, headed by architect Robert A.M. Stern, create an invaluable sequel to ``New York, 1900,'' with 847 pages and 600 photos. Their narrative of New York on the cusp of modernity moves from civic to commercial structures, public to private building in a city entering ``The Era of Commerce and Convenience.'' It charts a period, the authors say, in which buildings ``could be modern and still maintain a link to the architecture of the past.'' Good postmodernists that Stern et al. are, they portray a time and place that parallel our own; a place of vanities fair and not so fair all the more fascinating as a biography of an infant city and parent of today's.

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``New York 1930'' covers one of the most dynamic periods in urban history, embracing ``banker's classicism'' and ``buoyant modernity,'' Rockefeller Center with its deco dazzle, and St. John the Divine with its anachronistic building for endless decades. But the massive volume is as intriguing in its asides (the pneumatic tube service from Wall Street, for instance) as in its sweep across major movements; as intriguing for its anecdotes (the opposition to a Walt Whitman poem in a public building) as in its detailing of a range of building types - office towers and exhibitions, clubs and churches, bridges and parks.

Despite the committee quality of the prose, now pedantic, now lively, the authors' eye for the past is keen. They pepper the commentary with quotations. Lewis Mumford strides from chapter to chapter describing, say, the newly opened Cloisters, which he opined ``confronts the George Washington Bridge as the Virgin of Chartres, in Henry Adams' parable, might have confronted the Dynamo. But in this case, the Virgin loses out.''

The book's strengths are its inevitable weaknesses. Its encyclopedic nature makes this the central document on the city; it also makes it a chore to read. You need a crane to hoist the book into position for a leisurely read on, say, the trouble in disseminating Jazz Age designs to Americans who found them resonant of ``the underworld character of speakeasies and nightclubs.'' You may, in the end, prefer a videocassette with a Fred Astaire backdrop to perusing the delightful but cumbersome pages of interiors in ``At Home in Manhattan.''

Could the publishers have gone beyond such limitations on patience - and readership - for this worthwhile volume? Sacrifice the 88 pages of footnotes and index, and the book loses its authoritativeness. Condense 41 pages on architecture in art, photography, and film, and you lose some engaging material. On the other hand, cut the verbiage on the nomenclature and battle of the styles. Reduce a few of the seven illustrated versions of the Museum of Modern Art or the same number of the Irving Trust and you increase portability, not to mention readability.

It is the density of detail if not the editing of the book that makes one wish it were less laborious to read. Every city might benefit from such earnest inspection and scholarship. In the case of ``New York, 1930,'' the amplitude of the period may merit its heft. One only wishes the modernist architecture of New York 1960 to 1990 still to come may match its riches.

Jane Holtz Kay is contributing architecture editor of The Nation.

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