AMERICA BY DESIGN

By Spiro Kostof

Oxford University Press. 388 pp. $24.95

Reading Spiro Kostof's book is like jetting from coast to coast while a computerized tour guide recites trivia and truths, facts and figures at supersonic speed. The book never takes off and never lands, but you do get quick glimpses of fascinating sights as you fly by.

This is the book that accompanies the Public Broadcasting Service's new series by the same name. Kostof is a University of California architectural history professor.

The portfolio of wonderful color photographs by Werner Schumann, director and producer of the television program, promises good looking for the series. The reading list of Kostof's sources helps those who prefer to know more about less. From the book itself, the persevering reader can learn:

Row houses, based on Georgian London, began in Philadelphia and Boston in the first half of the 18th century, in Baltimore and New York a generation after American independence, and by the mid-19th century were built in New Haven, Georgetown and Savannah.

The mass-produced nail and the 2-by-4 stud married in the 1830s and 1840s to give birth to the balloon-frame house.

Frank Lloyd Wright, who said, "Shelter should be the essential look of any dwelling," was an early advocate of tearing down interior walls, saying, "There need be but one room, the living room ..."

Apartment houses, called "French Flats," came to the American city in the 1870s from Paris. One critic said apartments were for "the newly wed and the nearly dead." Mrs. E.F. Hutton's apartment on Fifth Avenue had 54 rooms on three floors.

The most fascinating of all prefab houses, the Buckminster Fuller Dymaxion House of 1927, is yet too advanced for 1987's design cowards.

About 50 years ago, Henry Ford claimed he built his plant in Dearborn, Mich., to "lift drudgery off flesh and blood and lay it on steel and motors." Yet, in Ford's factory, you could be fired for getting a divorce, and your profit sharing could be forfeited if you sent money to Ireland.

George Pullman built an entire town for his workers in 1880, but they hated it, some say because the new town of Pullman had no privately owned houses, no bars and no bordellos.

Kostof rescues some neglected geniuses from oblivion.

Roland Anthony Wank, TVA's chief architect in its earliest years, deserves great credit for his monumental early modern designs. The architects he hired and inspired gave Knoxville and Norris, Tenn., a head start on most other American cities in terms of 20th-century architecture.

Albert Kahn, a German who emigrated to Detroit in 1880, brought the idea of "form follows function" to the city's factories -- notably Ford's River Rouge plant at Dearborn and the Packard plant -- and asserted the famous dictum "Architecture is 90 percent business and 10 percent art."

Kostof makes some surprising omissions.

He notes that Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin building in 1904 used an atrium to bring light to office workers, but he doesn't say that in Washington, Gen. Montgomery Meigs used the same trick in his 1883 Pension Office building.

Writing of preservation and the organizations that foster it, he overlooks the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, the first and foremost such group. Kostof rightly writes about Savannah's grid plan, but he omits the preservation efforts that make it possible for low-income people as well as rich folk to stay in the town's restored Victorian district.

Though he cites Col. John Tayloe's other seats of government, he doesn't mention that he built, at the urging of George Washington, the second mansion in the capital, the well-preserved Octagon House, designed by William Thornton. It's now the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects.

But this is carping -- where else will you learn that:

Barbed wire was invented in 1873 by a man named Glidden. Macy's built its first big store in 1888. Henry Ford tried to buy Independence Hall to move to his Greenfield Village. Andrew Jackson Downing thought parks would sober more drinkers than temperance societies. The United States has 4 million highways and streets. Clearly this is a feast of a book.

The reviewer is a staff writer in the Style section of The Washington Post.