Bridges: works of steely art that span the centuries; The Tower and the Bridge, by David P. Billington. New York: Basic Books. 306 pp.

This is not the sort of book a family might read around the kitchen table. Yet it should interest anyone who ever wondered what is so appealing about the Eiffel Tower, Sydney's Harbor Bridge, or the Empire State Building.

Although the pages and pictures seem designed to attract the civil engineering student more than the literary, still I couldn't help being attracted to the opening lines in the first chapter:

''While automation prospers, our roads, bridges, and urban civil works rot. Children control computers while adults weave between potholes.''

Despite the cheap appearance of the pages, and photographs that fall far short of the striking dust jacket picture, Mr. Billington nevertheless ably introduces us to the importance of bridges and other structures that are a part of what we consider a civilized society. The book's subtitle is ''The New Art of Structural Engineering.'' It is the ''art'' that is emphasized, rather than functionalism or any practical form that civil engineering works may represent.

The public at large does not seem as impressed with great engineering works as their Victorian ancestors, and this is a pity. Billington makes it obvious that structural engineering is as much an art form as any other expression of man's imagination and creativity. The text and pictures in this book show clearly that, as in other forms of artistic endeavor, there are bridges that will always be considered masterpieces, such as the Brooklyn Bridge.

There is some criticism, however. He feels that Chicago's John Hancock Center Tower, for example, is ''asserting itself against all the canons of fashion and against what Khan called 'a priori architectural facade.' ''

Reading this book changed my attitude toward bridges and buildings I like. I began to realize why I like them. Whether one enjoys the curving crescents of Eiffel's tower, the bounding sheets of waved concrete on Isler's indoor tennis courts in Heimburg, Switzerland, or the strong, comforting vertical expression of the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, the book brings an understanding of things that surround us in everyday fashion, while remaining individual and unique.

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