The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded a $700,000 grant to WETA-TV, the local public television station, to produce a series of five programs on American architecture and design.

"This grant is among the most important ever made by this Endowment," said NEA chairman Livingston Biddle at a press conference yesterday. "It is precedent-setting."

The sum is the largest that NEA has ever awarded for a single television project. It must be matched with $2 in private money for every $1 of federal funds, bringing the total budget for the project to $2.1 million.

Charles guggenheim, the Washington-based filmmaker who produced "A Place to Be: The Construction of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art" for WETA two years ago, will be the executive producer of the project. a

"I see this as a giant undertaking which I have some insecurities about -- as I do with any project," said Guggenheim yesterday. "I am very excited about this from a cinematic point of view. Architecture is one of the most unexplored artistic disciplines. I find architects closer to being Renaissance scholars than any other artists. If this isn't an outstanding project, it will be no one's fault but our own."

The five one-hour programs are planned for telecast by the Public Broadcasting Service in the fall of 1982. The programs will examine the architecture and design of the environments in which "Americans live, play work and travel," focusing on the street, the house, the workplace, public places and parks. The host for the program will be Spiro Kostof, professor of architectural history at the University of California at Berkeley.

"There are very few programs like this done," said Michael Pittas, director of the NEA'S Design Arts Program. "When we started this program, I had grave doubts about the practicality and ability of media to show design arts. But Brian [O'Doherty, head of the NEA'S Media Arts program] said architecture is among the most enduring of the arts."

Despite the fact the few television programs on architecture have been successful, WETA president Ward Chamberlin expects this one to be different."We have tremendous creative talent in film and cinema," he said referring to Guggenheim, among others, "and enough money to do it in a first-rate fashion."

The NEA'S Design Arts and Media Arts departments had solicited proposals for the series from public TV stations and independent producers, and WETA's proposal eventually was selected over 21 others from around the nation.

Out of the $2.1 million cost of the project, according to Joyce Campbell of WETA-TV, the station and Guggenheim's production company together will spend about $500,000 for studio and various overhead costs (less than half of it at WETA), and another $800,000 will go for wages for producers, film crews, writers and other personnel. Guggenheim will be paid $75,000 for his work as executive producer, according to O'Doherty. Kostof will be paid $35,000. The remainder will be spent on travel, sound and lab services, promotion, equipment rental and materials. "It's not really a lot of money for public televison," said O'doherty."Five years ago we did a series of 1 1/2-hour dramas called 'Visions' and those cost $500,000 apiece."