Cambridge, Mass. — Labels cling to Ricardo Bofill like buildings adhere to their foundations. Critics have called the controversial Spanish designer the Cecil B. DeMille of architecture; or the Albert Speer of city building; even the 20th-century Piranesi of the proletariat.
His work receives the same treatment: Megascale new towns in France have been dubbed ''wage-earners' Versailles'' and ''subsidized Doric.''
With almost 1,000 units between them, these two housing projects were bound to attract attention just by their sheer size. But they are singled out still more by the tours de force he has used in molding their parts by machine, as well as using grandiose sculpture.
Glass bays rising seven stories high, parapets with cypress trees atop their crests, and columns broken up by shrubs dramatize the more recent of the two, Spaces of Abraxas, constructed in the Marne-la-Valee suburb of Paris in 1982.
Equally startling is les Arcades du Lac and le Viaduc at Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelins, a concrete complex with five-story arches stretched horizontally and reflected from an artificial lake.
These apparitions for Everyman are awesome. ''Large-scale housing projects will never justifiably be the same,'' one of Bofill's colleagues put it, and rightly.
The man who designed these awesome spectacles flicks slides of their monumental silhouettes as matter-of-factly as others show beach houses in Long Island. Ricardo Bofill is less intimidating than his apostolic work suggests. An intense, humanistic 44-year-old Barcelonan, his personal style and city bred individualistic polemic contrast with an architecture that seems overwhelming or excessive.
Lecturing, speaking through translators in an interview, or making random comments as he drives through Boston on a recent visit, Bofill displays a care for buildings, concern for the city, and commitment to public life that critics fault his buildings for eschewing.
These critics complain that for all his ''fresh amateur approach,'' Bofill's joints and joinings are ''often crude and primitive.'' The ivy may drop beguilingly from, say, the top of a castellated structure in San Just Desvern, Spain, but some of the interior rooms are pinched or designed more for their outside effect than inside comfort.
The quest for the theatrical is bothersome. ''Bofill's architecture dramatizes the ordinary in an enthralling way,'' Progressive Architecture magazine observed, ''but for the permanent residents the project has a disturbingly autocratic character.''
Nonetheless, Bofill insists his aim is to ''reknit the urban fabric.'' He says he does not simply plan sterile suburbs: He organizes his superscale housing on long axes or lays out diagonals to create city streets. The purpose of his firm Taller de Arquitectura's proposal for a third triumphal arch for the city of Paris is also to make ''an urban door.''
If the end result seems surreal and haunted to some, too historicist for others, he rebuts by saying that ''baroque is the architecture of the city; the city must be composed street by street, plaza by plaza.''
Certainly, the Bofill projects are laudable in their choice of middle- and low-income clients. They use prefabricated parts to keep costs low. And, finally , the structures address ways of providing living spaces that American architects ignore in their creation of single houses or ''monuments for corporations,'' in Bofill's words.
''From the social point, the problem that I'm interested in is not the lone block or single-family home because it produces an individualistic society.''
Bofill's and the Taller's early work, beginning in 1960, did create just such an isolated, grandiloquent monument to Spanish nationalism in the pyramidal structure at Le Boulou-Le Perthus, France. But his combined concern for the poetic and pragmatic soon evolved into an assembly-line architecture for the masses. So too his admiration for Barcelona's native son, Antonio Gaudi (''Gaudi taught us to sculpture stone,'' he says) produced Barrio Gaudi, a housing cluster in Reus, Spain (1964-1971).
Where Gaudi created an elegant architecture encrusted inch-by-inch, it seems, Bofill sees the concrete forms of prefabrication, multipled into meters, as the way to erect memorable - and especially repeatable and affordable - forms. ''This is cheap housing,'' he says. And, he adds, ''this is the appearance of theater.''
In one breath, then, he discusses the economic needs (''no element can be heavier than 80 kilograms; this project must be built by four workmen in one month''). In the next, he is on to the more abstruse aesthetic that makes his mannered monuments in the suburbs look like Roman coliseums. ''The vertical was the classical composition,'' he describes one building. ''The horizontal was the contemporary architecture.''
Then he puts it together: ''Here columns have a double function: They not only hold up the building, they also hold air conditioning, and it is foreseen that the buildings can be done in a very short time.''
At times it is hard to correlate such holistic or humanistic statements with the Brave New World of Architecture they depict, but it is also difficult to simply dismiss the classical, even overblown rhetoric of their looks.
In an era when architecture is, per force, a massive undertaking, the Spanish activist has tried to endow the big and banal with an identity. ''I'd like you to take my work as a way of living with architecture,'' he says.
It may be hard to sum such extravaganzas as livable. The Bofill and Taller projects may create an antihuman or boisterous theater. Undeniably, however, the problems they address are the ones that should stay center-stage in our times.