EVEN the untrained eye can see that the siting and proportions of buildings, and the spaces they enclose, have an impact far deeper than mere shape and size. This intriguing book by an associate professor of history at Scripps College, with a solid grounding in art, explores how the architectural design of the "Seven Sisters" colleges for women -- Mount Holyoke, Vassar, Wellesley, Smith, Radcliffe, Bryn Mawr and Barnard -- reflected the aims and attitudes of their founders, and reveals what unforeseen events took place when real students and teachers were turned loose within the carefully crafted walls.

The result is an absorbing study of the interplay between dreams and reality -- between society's views of women and women's views of themselves and the ever-shifting hazards that ensued once women were officially allowed to think. Then, circling back, you learn how these subtly evolving attitudes affected the design of additional structures and grounds as each of the colleges grew, each striving to offset the other's mistakes but discovering new perils before the paint was dry.

When the thought took root that women should be exposed to higher learning, Mount Holyoke was the first of the seven to embody the notion in brick and stone. Its limits were clear from the start. It was called a seminary, not a college. That would come later. It basically trained its young women to be teachers, enlisted "permanently in the cause of benevolence." Students and faculty -- all women -- were housed in a single building, designed to duplicate the protective shelter of home and family, with the female faculty replacing the mothers the girls had left behind. The structure itself was modeled on the asylum, the safe haven for that other segment of society deemed not competent to face real life.

Founder Mary Lyon wanted each girl to have a room of her own for the twice-daily quiet prayer that was part of the rigid schedule. Others countered that "a woman destined to share her abode with a mate ought not lose the habits of accommodation in her seminary years." Economics prevailed, and three students shared a room in a building "as plain and unpretentious as its founder." There were outdoor privies in the back; the girls hauled water upstairs from the basement and did domestic chores. The main central entrance, as in a home (or an asylum), was an architectural form of control. Men's college buildings of the time had separate entrances that gave direct access to students' rooms, so they could come and go at will and develop a college life of their own. "Mount Holyoke's building would have inhibited the growth of an autonomous student life had its inmates ever imagined such a possibility," Horowitz writes .

Had time stood still and Vassar not come along, Mount Holyoke girls might to this day be docile and submissive in the cause of benevolence. As it was, Matthew Vassar, a rich Poughkeepsie brewer who wanted to "insure his immortality in a great building," upset the apple cart.

VASSAR's bombshell was to offer women a true college, with a full liberal arts curriculum. James Renwick, fresh from such triumphs as St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Smithsonian Castle and huge hospitals on Roosevelt, Wards and Randalls Islands in New York, was asked to design Main Hall, and he followed the asylum route. "What I regard as an essential element of our institution," Matthew Vassar had written, "is the perfect Control of the pupils during the period of their instruction in the College." If he'd had his way they'd have worn uniforms.

But Renwick's asylum-based building had a fatal flaw in design. The suite arragement, with rooms opening on to each other, but not to the main corridor, "meant that students had places of privacy and retreat protected from the oversight of monitors." The appointment of men to the faculty put further cracks in the walls. They got bigger jobs, higher pay and better living quarters than women teachers, and rebellion brewed.

Smith strove to avoid the Mount Holyoke/Vassar pitfalls by housing its young women in "cottages," resembling oversized private dwellings, and omitting both chapel and library so students would mingle in the life of the town. But as the college population outstripped the town's facilities, Smith's planners, too, had to go back to the drawing board.

At Wellesley, Henry Fowle Durant tried to combine Vassar's beauty with Mount Holyoke's all-female environment. Later, after its lovely main building burned down, only a cliff- hanging battle prevented a disastrous rebuilding program. Bryn Mawr, under M. Carey Thomas, its headstrong first president, topped them all by imitating the structure and standards of the great universities of England and insisting that the mind has no gender.

All of which barely skims the surface of this densely researched book. Presenting the design of colleges as an embodiment of their purpose gives a fresh and provocative slant on their history, which becomes a suspenseful drama whose outcome is still in doubt.

Though Alma Mater's focus is on academe, with the occasional ponderous passages that implies, it sends a message to readers beyond the walls. Some of the buildings going up these days are more than just ugly. They actually hold the power to shape our lives. Maybe we should have more of a say about that.