"Shaping the City" began in 1984 with a series of essays about the evolving urban form and architecture of Washington. Now, 20 years later, shaping the nation's capital is the subject of a beautiful new book that goes far beyond what a few essays can achieve.

Joseph R. Passonneau's "Washington Through Two Centuries: A History in Maps and Images" (Monacelli Press, $75) comprehensively describes and richly illustrates how this city came into being at the end of the 18th century and then developed over the next 200 years.

If you have room on your bookshelf for only one book about Washington's origins and growth, this is the one to own.

This weighty, well-designed tome culminates 30 years of impassioned, painstaking work by Passonneau, a District-based architect, civil engineer and transportation design consultant whose distinguished professional career has included both practice and teaching. Dean of Washington University's architecture school before coming to the District in the early 1970s, he also has taught at Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia and the University of Maryland.

This is not just a coffee table book, although it is densely filled with reproductions of paintings, engravings, drawings, photographs and meticulously drafted maps. You can easily spend a couple of hours leafing through its 283 pages and gazing at the hundreds of exquisite images with their pithy, explanatory captions.

Drawing upon his own work as well as the work of historians and other scholars, Passonneau has crafted a rigorously researched reference that nevertheless tells a compelling story, one to which you can return again and again. "Washington Through Two Centuries" is a chronological, narrative account of the capital's planning, construction and reconstruction.

It traces the city's architectural lineage and traditions, the ever-shifting tastes and diverse styles that have contributed so significantly to Washington's aesthetic character. It also depicts notable buildings razed in the name of 20th century slum clearance and modernization, reminding readers that much of Washington's 19th-century architecture has been lost to the wrecking ball.

The book is encyclopedic in its treatment of the subject. Yet the abundant graphics impart a cinematic quality, like a collection of storyboards for a documentary film. Page after page of well-chosen visual representations reveal a city changing layer by layer.

After the author's introduction, six chapters recount and illustrate six periods: planning the capital, 1800 through the Civil War, the Civil War to 1900, 1900 to 1940, 1940 to 1970, and 1970 to 2000. The book concludes with a discussion of challenging issues -- transportation, employment, housing, downtown development, waterfronts, urban ecology, regional relationships -- facing the city at the beginning of the 21st century.

Passonneau doesn't just describe the city and its architecture. He explains how Washington's structural and aesthetic evolution relates to geography, transportation, business and commerce, real estate trends, land-use regulation and zoning, public works initiatives, cultural and civic forces, technology, demography, local and regional politics, war and peace, and, of course, the policies and actions of the federal government.

He continually cites historical circumstances, people and events that helped shape parts of the city as well as the city as a whole. For example, he writes about LeDroit Park's notable African American residents, along with its shops, churches and schools. He recalls Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas helping spur movements for the preservation of Capitol Hill and the C&O Canal.

Most of the book focuses on the District's historic core, the area of the L'Enfant plan encompassing the Mall and the mixed-use, moderately dense neighborhoods abutting downtown: Georgetown, Capitol Hill, Foggy Bottom, Shaw, Dupont Circle and Southwest.

But Passonneau also reaches beyond the center and talks briefly about development of other, predominantly residential neighborhoods: Chevy Chase, Tenleytown, Cleveland Park, Kalorama, Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, LeDroit Park, Brightwood, Brookland, Takoma Park and Anacostia.

The other remarkable attribute of the book is its wealth of maps, for which Passonneau's passion is evident. The book begins with the 1791 L'Enfant plan -- Passonneau refers to the designer by the Anglicized version of his name, Peter Charles L'Enfant, rather than the more commonly heard Pierre -- and the 1792 engraving of that plan by Andrew Ellicott. Recall that L'Enfant was fired by George Washington after the French engineer complained too loudly that his plan was not being followed.

In addition to familiar historical plans, the author includes topographical maps, political maps, land-use and transportation maps, and street and block maps. A few conceptual, diagrammatic maps illustrate urban design intentions, such as spatial patterns and axial relationships. Augmenting the maps are occasionally stunning aerial views -- photographs, colorful paintings, elaborately rendered drawings -- dating from different periods.

Especially noteworthy, however, are Passonneau's six foldout maps. Stretching from Rock Creek to Capitol Hill, each map is a kind of snapshot plan view of the central city -- in 1800, 1860, 1900, 1940, 1970 and 2000. On one side of the foldout we see the familiar L'Enfant street-block pattern, with parks, waterways and building footprints color coded to show their use.

On the other side of the foldout, the same map serves as a base but shows all the buildings three dimensionally, providing a sense of architectural mass, density and urban texture. Amazingly, the facades of the city's larger edifices are clearly depicted. And the most important architecture and places are identified and listed. The 1800 map lists 33, the 2000 map 91.

You might want to buy two of Passonneau's books. One would be for reading and keeping on the bookshelf, the other for cutting apart so you can display his maps on the wall, along with some of the book's other images.

Passonneau has brought immense wisdom, professional experience and analytical skill to this extraordinary book.

I have no doubt that I and my students will be opening it frequently.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.