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The Many Shapes of Shelter

Shelter: Human Habitats From Around the World Written by Charles Knevitt Published in Britain by Polymath Publishing168 pp., 19.95

`All architecture is shelter,'' according to the American architect Philip Johnson, who is quoted (along with many others) in a book by Charles Knevitt, a British architecture-journalist.

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The two pictures shown here are from this book, called ''Shelter: Human Habitats From Around the World.''

Johnson continued: ''All great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts or stimulates the persons in that space.''

The book, like Johnson's statement, expands the concept of shelter beyond the basic notion of a roof over one's head. Seventy-five color photographs of architecture, each with commentaries, add up to what is rather more than the attractive bedside volume this book first appears to be.

It is a wide-ranging and thought-provoking celebration of the extraordinary diversity of the human imagination as it has -- since the dawn of civilization -- been applied to the concept of home; an imagination as actively inventive in ''poor'' cultures as in ''rich.'' In the terms of this book, shelter can mean the Palace of Versailles outside Paris no less than the cave houses in Guadix, Spain; Frank Lloyd Wright's ''Fallingwater'' no less than squatter camps in Rio de Janeiro.

While Knevitt is evenhanded for the most part in his informative descriptions of anything from timber shacks in the East Caribbean to Piazza Houses in South Carolina, the author is still quietly promoting some theories.

Knevitt does it without too much tub-thumping, largely letting us form our own opinions based on the evidence he selectively presents. Only the French architect Le Corbusier and his followers receive overt disapproval: ''Le Corbusier's rational, radical vision was ultimately stultifying when applied ad infinitum, ad nauseam by lesser mortals.''

To Knevitt, even the Walled City at Kowloon in Hong Kong, an appalling megastructure on six acres that ''houses'' an estimated 33,000 people of refugee status, seems more exciting than Le Corbusier. He calls its effect ''exhilarating'' as well as a shocking ''inferno of crime and squalor.''

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It may be that this inferno, for all its anarchy, comes closer to the self-determining idea of ''community architecture'' (a term Knevitt himself coined). He is by no means alone in preferring community architecture to the arrogant imposition on a passive public of a modernist architect's Utopian dream.

His preface touches on ''changes'' that he believes ''are manifestly needed ... to restore the balance between the basic requirements of shelter, psychological as well as physical, and its provision.'' He mentions such things as ''learning from vernacular traditions of working with nature, climate and local materials.'' He wants to get back to builders and away from architects. He advocates ''self-help'' and ''self-build.'' He favors the use of recycled waste as building materials.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that Charles, Prince of Wales, has provided the foreword to this book (a percentage of its proceeds goes to a housing charity called Shelter). And Knevitt is openly an admirer of the prince's campaign to look to the past to remedy what he sees as the disasters of the architecture of our century.

But Knevitt does not, it seems, despise the modernism of this century with quite the fervor the prince has sometimes publicly mustered. This may be because he believes ''a Luddite reaction against the trends of the past 200 years would be impractical and ultimately counter-productive.'' And partly because he is able to see both sides of a question.

He admits, for instance, that the luxury resort, designed in the late 20th century to look like a Provencal-style fishing village of a much earlier period at Port-Grimaud in the south of France is ''anathema ... to the purist, a pastiche.''

He does not, however, address the question of why such praiseworthy attempts to recreate cosy communities from the past in the modern age only seem possible in regressive styles of tepid unoriginality. In the final analysis, such model villages may, after all, be just as much an imposed Utopian dream as Le Corbusier's high-rises, even if they are more willingly accepted by their inhabitants.

Houses, however prettily tiled and amiably clustered, do not in themselves make living communities. This sort of thing savors too much of the rich fancying that the poor live simple and good lives when they are (and certainly were in earlier centuries) as cramped and deprived as the inhabitants of the Walled City.

Why do we imagine that yesterday's squalor makes a helpful model for today's good life?

Not all holes in the ground, as troglodytes past and present would surely confirm, are quite as comfortable and middle class as J.R.R. Tolkein's hobbit hole.

Yet Knevitt quotes Tolkein's description of this delightful but fictional hole as if he believes it might contain a secret for our future ideas of shelter. He could have a point. But personally I don't have hairy feet and I like a home with a view.

* Although this book is published in Britain, reputable book stores in the US will order books from abroad.

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