Society's impact on housing; HOW WE BELIEVE, MOLDS THE WAY WE DESIGN

By , Jane Holtz Kay is architecture critic of The Christian Science Monitor.

Anonymous was an architect. For 300 years, an army of unidentified ''government officials, popular journalists, land speculators, reformers, and industrialists have designed the face of America.

Through zoning or moral/missionary work, through buying or building, these architects-without-portfolio have promoted and constructed most of the design of the American environment. Perhaps it was too important to be left to the professionals, or ''artists,'' of the trade.

Always, the home was more than a house and architecture was more than a facade to such ''causists.'' Alike, they sought to enroll architecture in the social issues of the day.

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To Puritan founders seeking God, to early nationalists stressing unity, to industrialists demonstrating equality, or to the feminists of today seeking ''domestic revolution,'' shelter was to embody and mold the aspirations of the day.

And yet if, as Vincent Scully tells us, the essence of American architecture is the house and the high-rise, the bulk of house design has remained aloof from serious speculation in our era.

Now, however - coming, it seems, to confirm the current nightmare of a houseless society - is a wealth of books, and conversations, too, about Building the Dream (Pantheon), as social historian Gwendolyn Wright titles her search for residential architecture.

Canvassing this archetypal form of architecture, Wright's book joins such recent general examinations as David Handlin's The American Home (Little, Brown) and such specific ones as her own Moralism and the Model Home (University of Chicago Press). These all show graphically that how and what we believe molds the way we design.

Consider, for example, the mansard roof of the first American apartment building, the Hotel Pelham in Boston, in 1855. The ''shock of the new'' was diminished by its heavy-browed roof. The weighty overhang made this wicked French adoption look smaller, linking it to the benign old row-house style or the single-family home of tradition.

Examine, too, Wright urges, the fanciful period styles of the 1920s - the ''French chateaux, Spanish haciendas, Norman farmhouses, Georgian manors, Old English cottages, and various Early American homesteads.'' They not only added charm but implied the kind of ethnic diversity and cultural continuity that Americans sought.

The cult of motherhood and the love of nature - all had their physical manifestation in American architecture, in the view of such social historians.

Contrast again this symbolic home with the soaring aspirations of the business district's high-rise. The hard-edge frantic world of ''downtown'' was quite opposite to the retreat-seeking, gentle, hearth-centered, parlored home in the suburbs.

Ordinary architecture, not just monuments, then, are the source for these new readings.

A new land, open for countless houses, provided a fertile field to enlist architecture in the service of higher ends; common houses were calculated to become company towns - be the ''company'' the Puritans with their model townscape, shaped as a hierarchy of concentric circles around meeting house, ministers, and prominent folk and down to artisans or farmers on the outer edges; or be it an industry such as the Eli Whitney Gun Factory in Millrock, Conn., with its cottages, as identical and severely refined as Whitney's standardized parts.

Control the environment and you could control the health and welfare of the worker, urban reformers believed. This combined with a mania for privacy and a distrust for the city (cut off the ''street habit,'' Jacob Riis demanded). And soon zealots for architectural betterment were designing massive structures, creating inner courtyards off the street, and clearing slums.

Whether the 1890s Riverside Apartment in Brooklyn or the barren box of Cleveland's Cedar Apartment in the post-World War II style of our day, they reflected this mind-set.

Social aspirations could be moralistic, to the point of designing tenements with small rooms to keep out the ''horrid'' prospect of boarders. On the other hand, under the pen of sensitive architects, such as Vaux and Redford, extra light and air could come from adjusting the site plan of even the most rigid tenement formula.

Notions of the proper family environment and woman's place there were writ large in the social history of architecture.

More than a century ago in ''Walden,'' Thoreau pointed out the isolation of the kitchen from the house. ''There is as much secrecy about the cooking as if he (the host) had a desire to poison you,'' he wrote. Only much later would the open kitchen reflect a changing view.

Technology as well as such family or moral definitions transformed American architecture. The emerging holistic scannings also note that without the trolley , there would have been no ''streetcar suburb''; without the car and the highway-building program, no further extension of the form.

Lacking the elevator, no high-rise or large apartment dwelling could have evolved.

The ballroom frame, a lightweight form of construction lending itself to factory production, allowed Sears, Roebuck and others to send out new designs a century before prefabrication became a trend. The machine even allowed the fish-scaled shingle roofs, the gingerbread, the applied ornament, and all the Victorian architectural knicknacks that we now consider ''handmade.''

Multidimensional looks at the past, whether Handlin's, Wright's, or more specialized studies, bring insights on the potential results in design that will emerge from today's issues. Just as rising mortgage rates may end the creation of single-house architecture, 1980s style, so convenient financing aided its early growth many years ago.

Similarly, an earlier architecture, with and without architects, provides role models for apartments whose cooperative design makes overworked, economically pressed home seekers envious. Dwellings with central laundries, kitchens, and even day-care centers are detailed in these works and others, such as Dolores Hayden's The Grand Domestic Revolution - a History of Feminist Design for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press).

The notion of architecture for political purposes, in fact, has had a contemporary revival in today's feminist and family tracts.

While endorsing the ''kind of privacy and individual control of our own space that is the American dream,'' the feminist Betty Friedan comes from Hayden's tradition of looking for a nurturing environment, drawn by architects and planners in The Second Stage (Summit).

Her vision of building the dream may call for revolution, but it stands within this ongoing tradition of using architecture as a tool of social policy and polemics that merits the consideration now at hand.

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