THE ARCHITECT'S ART. Three new volumes on historical architecture emphasize photographs

VILLAS OF THE VENETO Photographs by Reinhart Wolf, Text by Peter Lauritzen, Introduction by Sir Harold Acton, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 200 pp. $49.50

IMAGES OF FIN-DE-SI`ECLE: ARCHITECTURE AND INTERIOR DECORATION Photographs by Keiichi Tahara, Foreword by Robert A.M. Stern, Text by Riichi Miyake, Tokyo and New York: Kodansha International.

263 pp. $125; through Dec. 31, $95


Text by Anne Elizabeth Powell, Photographs by Joe Viesti

New York: Bantam Books, 248 pp. $34.95

WHAT constitutes a good book on a subject whose spacious presence hardly fits on a page? This question is particularly relevant these days, as many architects record their ideas in book as well as built form.

The editors of these three new volumes on historical architecture have chosen to emphasize the photographs, rather than to provide gracious space for the text and to coordinate it with the images.

Peter Lauritzen's essay in ``Villas of the Veneto'' precedes the photographs and consolidates much of a vast literature on Andrea Palladio's 16th-century innovations in house design - designs that have influenced British and American architecture more than have any others in the history of architecture. Lauritzen's attention to unique Venetian qualities in Palladio's designs for these serenely beautiful, small, relatively inexpensive, working ``farmhouses'' on the newly cultivated mainland grows from Lauritzen's own love of Venetian architecture, recorded in his ``Venice Preserved'' (University of Nebraska Press, 1986).

Palladio took a number of Venetian ``mental habits'' of building with him to Rome. His knowledge of Venetian building enabled him to interpret newly discovered fragments of ancient architecture and to offer his clients a form of architectural design so systematic that it can be considered the first truly professional architecture.

In the second, more lavish book, a Japanese photographer and a Japanese historian of Western architecture present ``Images of Fin-de-Si`ecle: Architecture and Interior Decoration.'' They intend this to be a resource book for contemporary architects, who, according to the author, face a period of ``disorientation'' and ``distortion'' similar to that which lasted from the end of the 19th century until World War I.

Robert Stern's foreword links this book, published first for a Japanese audience, to its American readership and to American architectural counterparts - Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright - as well as to ``the Classical tradition.'' Riichi Miyake's essay individualizes the European movements' concerns for social reform and psychologically interprets the varied imagery. In some cases, this architecture becomes entirely the expression of the new forms of ornament - the real subject of this photographic essay.

Keiichi Tahara's 200 pages of large, dark, mysterious, iridescent photographs center entirely on this mood-evoking detail: close views of swirls of stained glass, linear iron stair railings, mosaic-encrusted columns and domes. The catalog at the end is essential for locating the photographed detail within the building.

Anne Elizabeth Powell's ``The New England Colonial'' turns away from these European craftsman-architects who found inspiration for public and private buildings in medieval and Japanese art. Instead of late 19th-century innovations, or Palladio's in the 16th century, she presents the anonymous ``builders' architecture'' of the American colonies. Powell describes the intimate spaces of domestic architecture, conceived first after a medieval pattern and developed in the exigencies of frontier New England and in early colonial prosperity. She extends the definition of colonial to include the more refined ``Federal'' style of the new republic.

Powell deserves the warm foreword and introduction that ties her book to other preservation efforts. Some of her most striking pages note solutions to preservation puzzles: the removal of a soon-to-be-demolished 1680 saltbox from the slums of North Kingston, R.I., to a wooded site, or the addition of a solar wing to the 1811 Federal ``Parsonage'' in Hollis, N.H., purchased by former Massachusetts Gov.Endicott Peabody.

Powell's brief historical sketch for each New England state leads to individual house. There she casually surveys how the present owners have restored the building, continuities they have maintained in furnishings, changes they have made in color (the ``white'' colonial is, in fact, an early 19th-century classically inspired transformation.

As a reward for patiently working through any of these books, the reader may begin to see how much thought is recorded in the wonderful larger-than-book-size buildings all around us.

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