What are life styles, anyway?

Discussing "Form and Purpose" during a week of crisp sunshine were a hundred or so of the country's leading designers of clothing, interiors, graphics, appliances, buildings and cities.

An audience of 1,500 packed Aspen's famous music tent as the designers quarreled about style and looked for its meaning to philosophers like Buckminster Fuller, anthropologists like Catherine Bateson, historians like James Marston Fitch, sociologists like Nathan Glazer and psychologists like Jerome Lettvin.

It was Aspen's 30th International Design Conference and, no doubt, the most searching of these usually confident assertions of the design establishment.

The producer (officially called "program chairman") this year was Moshe Safdie, the architect of the famous housing structure at Montreal's Expo '67; of Coldspring, the new town-in-town in Baltimore; and of various building schemes in many parts of the world, notably Israel. He is also directing the urban design program at Harvard.

Safdie is foremost among successful young architects to advocate reason and humanism in architecture and to deplore the increase of frivolous eclecticism which he calls "the egomaniacal desire, collectively and individually, to stand out and show off."

The Aspen Design Conference, a nonprofit affair, was launched by the late industrialist Walter Paepcke, who thought the old silver mining town a perfect place to exchange ideas and information about how design, the sciences, art and education impinge upon each other.

Pauline Trigere spoke about fashion. George Nelson spoke about furniture design. Ivan Chermayeff talked about graphics. Others talked about food and filmmaking, ancient mythology, the destiny of the cosmos and, in the words of Richard Sennett, "the fall of modern man."

Serge Chermayeff, the father of Ivan and the doyen of design teachers (Harvard and Yale), was moved to tears as he eloquently contemplated the decline of Modern motivations and the foibles of fashionable egomania.

Nathan Glazer feared that technology is racing ahead of human needs, meeting technical functions, perhaps, but not human purpose.

Bucky Fuller popped into the tent to assure us that "Spaceship Earth" was still on course -- suspended somewhere between utopia and disaster.

Richard Rogers, the British architect of the "Beaubourg," the Georges Pompidou Art and Cultural Center in Paris, with its colorful outdoor plumbing, seemed the only other designer in Aspen whose faith in unbridled technology was not at least dented. Rogers' design for the Lloyd insurance offices in London reaffirmed that he still believes that pipes, ducts and other mechanical paraphernalia can and must be elevated to the status of art.

The others are beginning to look for inspiration to our humanity rather than our technology.

Yet, the biggest hit -- perhaps even more enthusiastically applauded and discussed than Jerome Lettvin's rabbinical rendition of Greek mythology (Medusa as octopus and vice versa) -- was the "Gossamer Albatross."

The 60-pound airplane with a 96-foot wingspan, you may recall, crossed the English Channel last year, propelled by the muscles of a lean, 26-year-old biologist and hang-glider from California named Bryan Allen. We thrilled to the determination and endurance of this modern Icarus, as shown on film. But even more applause was given the designer of this first person-powered aircraft, Paul MacCready, and his vision of new energy resources harnessed from wind and water. We applauded the promise of using the power of nature rather than of machinery.

The triumph of the "Gossamer Albatross" seemed to overwhelm the central controversy of the conference -- Modernism versus Post-Modernism. Everyone seemed agreed that orthodox, abstract Modern, a.k.a. The International Style, has failed to attain its ambitious social goals and that it sinned by divorcing itself from history. The issue was only whether history can be treated as a kind of decorative adhesive, tacked on otherwise sterile buildings. That, in essence, is what the Post-Modernists, a small but vocal group of young architects based mostly on Manhattan, seem to be doing, as architecture students around the country and architecture critics in New York watch with fascination. The trouble with pasting moldings and Corinthian capitals on Bauhaus facades is only that the pasters elevate this exterior decoration to a Weltanschaung. But while it will hardly improve the human condition, architecture, I suspect, will survive it.

The debate, however, was lopsided. The sole defender of Post-Modernism at Aspen was Robert A. M. Stern, a witty and erudite speaker. But this time, the anger of his detractors provoked him to fits of frivolity which sidetracked the discussion. Stern maintained that architecture should set out to create symbols. Moshe Safdie, his foremost opponent, countered that the symbolic meaning of a building evolves from its human purposes.

What it boiled down to, or should have, is the question of whether the designer should let creativity (and/or the urge for originality) to flow unhindered wherever it leads, or whether he should meet his purposes in the most direct and economic manner. Does architecture primarily serve art or civilization?

The question will no doubt be forever with us. Benjamin Thompson, the most humble and therefore perhaps the most important architect of our day, addressed it 16 years ago when he said:

"Forget about Architecture with a capital "A"; death to all monuments, they stifle our dreams. Let conceit not intrude, and sanity prevail. The poetry of life lies ahead in exploration of truth from the infinitely small to the infinitely great domains of prophetic imagination."

Thompson, who, having said it all, kept quiet at Aspen, is the architect of Boston's hugely successful Fanheuil Hall Marketplace as well as Marketsquare in Baltimore, which will open next week.

We heard the usual amount of conceit and an unusual amount of sanity in Aspen. The meeting did fire the prophetic imagination. How could it be otherwise in a conference that opened with great eating scenes from famous films, such as -- remember? -- "Tom Jones," and included a talk by Kennedy Frazier on the sociology of fashion and an account by Orville Schell of the passion for blue jeans on the part of young Chinese communists.

So, whether or not the design conference achieved its purpose, the form was terrific.

In the end, I'm afraid, it is style that counts.