"The L'Enfant plan was unparalleled in its scale, scope and complexity, and in its resolution of the probems . . . of creating out of bare landscape a new capital city. Despite crisis, criticism and shortcoming, there was a correctness of vision that inspired and endured. And there is now in Washington, national capital city, the timeless beauty of rise and river, street and circle, dome and diagonal, monument and Mall that fastens itself on the imagination . . ."

-From "Worthy of the Nation, the History of Planning for the National Capital."

IN THE beginning was Pierre L'Enfant drawing his lonely plans. He was opinionated, jealous, secretive, well-educated, certainly a genius. He dreamed of an orderly city of radiant circles. He believed the great capital city he foresaw should be orgaized into neighborhoods where people could cling to each other for aid and comfort in the manner of residents of small towns. Yet he linked this belief in a city for the citizens to the formal city, an Olympia of pantheons to heroes and malls for the mighty.

"Worthy of the Nation," a monumental effort itself as broad as L'Enfant's mall, is the newest of the National Capital Planning Commission Historical Studies, written by Frederick Gutheim, consultant; with photographic essays by Robert Lautman; published by the Smithsonian Institution Press ($8.95 paperback, $22.50 hardcover; available in bookstores). It begins with L'Enfant but continus the story of planning the city into present day.

The 415 pages tell us more than anyone could possibly want to know about all the planning boards and committees who have held sway over the city, but that is, after all, its stated purpose.

On the other hand, the book tells us far less than some of us would ask about how the Tiber was subdued, under Constitution Avenue, the way Mary Henderson developed 16th Street NW as the Avenue of the Presidents, why the trolley car's juice was cut off, who Carter Barron was and why the amphitheater is named for him, why Capitol Hill was redeveloped privately. But then, Gutheim didn't promise all the answers.

If the vast text with its erudite discussions and its massive research into the city history were all, the book could be safely put on the shelf and consulted only when some fascinating tidbit of fact had to be ascertained.

("The City Council's 1852 prohibition of new cemeteries within the city of Washington; installation in 1853 of gas lamps on major streets and avenues; introduction of modern street signs; inauguration of the city's first system of house numbering in 1854; all these are distinct moves away from a country-like settlement to a modern city.")

But the book offers more: a remarkably fine collection of 401 photographs, diagrams, sketches and other graphic representations. The vast majority of the photographs are by Washington's award-winning Robert Lautman, who has made a career of photographing the city as though it were his lover, as he is its.

Like a lover, he has perhaps made the city look more romantic and glamorous than some would say it is. This is not a book of the ashcan school of photography. You'll see no pictures here of 14th Street NW after the riots or the slums of Shaw. That's another story and another book. The most horrifying of these pictures are those of the highrises and the highways. Most of "Worthy of the Nation" focuses Lautman's telephoto lens on the city fulfilling the "city beautiful" of its planners.

The most interesting of the photographs are those that take the long view: the aerial and telephoto shots that show axes and arteries. The river and its bridges with the mist thick in the trees around the domes of the Naval observatory remind us of the constant reference in early writing about the city to the miasma the city planners so greatly feared. Indeed the miasma they saw and smelled rising from the Tiber, the Potomac and all their tributaries forced many thoughts of relocating the White House, if not the whole capital.

A photograph from Dupont Circle, looking south at tall buildings nudging tall buildings, reminds us of L'Enfant's hope for a horizontal city. If you look closely, you can see, even in this aerial view, how fortunate Washington is at its center to have saved the occasional clusters of small two and the three-story row houses.

And in the aerial view of the city and Key Bridge, with the forest of trees on the Virginia side, we are reminded, as Gutheim points out in the text, that Washington is a river town, and L'Enfant meant us always to regard the river as a major force. In another telephoto view, down 16th Street NW, you can see the historic White House axis, and the Washington Monument, sited off course because of the uncertainties of the water table. These monumental matters are in the photographic essay in the front of the book.

In the back is another photograghic essay, reminding us what Gutheim tells in words, of L'Enfant's plans, and the fights of those who followed him to keep the pleasures of that 10 square miles, once covered with verdant trees, pure pools and heavenly heights. (Gutheim notes that part of the original District of Columbia was given back to Virginia, a decision the planners regretted when Virginia's skyscrapers threatened the Washington skyline.)

Farragut Square is a formal park complete with the obligatory statue of the great man with his gun. But look at the picture of all those people not only stepping on the grass, but lying on it. That tells you a great deal about the flexibility of L'Enfant's formality. The confluence of Rock Creek and the Potomac River is perhaps not comparable to the Nile and Lake Victoria, but still there is a grassy bank here, a place to read the newspaper and as Gutheim points out, the healing sound of water.

Lautman obviously likes bridges, and Washington has many for him. The sophisticated Key Bridge over the rustic C & Canal reminds us of what a shame it is that the plans of L'Enfant for a canal to be major element of the Mall are no more. The photograph of Pierce Mill at Park Road and Tilden Street NW in Rock Creek Park, the rapids of Great Falls and the Capitol with its new reflecting pond recall Gutheim's discussion of L'Enfant's fascination with water:

"L'Enfant would not be satisfied simply to solve the city's drainage problem; he wanted to use water in the form of fountains, reflecting pools, and - his most spectacular proposal - in a cascade that was to emerge from the base of the Capitol and flow down to join the projected City Canal in a carefully designed reflecting pool that formed on integral element in the functional canal system. It is in such proposals that L'Enfant's debt to European landscape design is most evident, echoing the great Renaissance tradition of cascade design."

Though we mourn the lack of the cascade at the Capitol, Lautman's picture of the Meridian Hill falls offers some solace.

The book also includes plates of a number of plan for the city.

Gutheim, in his vast scholarship, relates many old stories and forgotten fancies:

L'Enfant, for instance, had intended the area south of the Capitol where the Potomac met the Anacostia to be an important municipal center. But there were great conflicts of commercial interests.

The city owed much of its " villa architecture and villa life" to its position on the edge of the plantation country. But because of its role as temporary host to the Congress and its camp followers, there grew up first boarding houses and later row houses for those who couldn't afford villas.

Andrew Jackson Downing in 1851 proposed a plan for the Mall in teh "natural style of landscaping . . . a public museum of living trees and shrubs." He wanted a decorative wiresuspension bridge to connect the Mall with the President's Park, not to mention a reservoir in the Capitol with the overflow pumped into a lake, all surrounded by walks, drives and other pleasure grounds.

The book pays tribute to Gen. Montgomery Meigs and his water system. which, according to Gutheim, worked much better in the northwest section of the city than in the northeast and southwest, resulting in the more-expensive homes being built in the northwest. Gutheim says the northwest section has better city services to this day.

The Civil War brought to the capital newspaper reporters bent on gathering the news from the new telegraph system, female government workers and soldiers (in the Capitol, the vault marked out but never used for Washington's remains became an army bakery), vastly increasing the population. It was during this era, according to Gutheim, that the area now called the Federation Triangle, became "Murder Bay."

The history of Washington's trees is traced here in Meigs' trips to Unter den Linden in Berlin, following L'Enfant and Thomas Jefferson's early druidism.

And more: how the Beltway was built, and how the Three Sisters Bridge was not. And how L'Enfant won some parks and lost some other things. And why the 2001-year plan was developed. All about the suburbs, and the scheme to disperse the government to foil enemy attack.

In every time there is a city that stands at the center of the century's universe. Rome, Athens, Vienna, London, Paris all had their day. Today is Washington's.