How the places where we live, work, shop and play have been shaped over the years, why, and what they tell us about ourselves as a society, is the complex subject of Spiro Kostof's "America by Design." As he demonstrated in his seminal "A History of Architecture," Oxford, 1985, Kostof, a UC Berkeley professor, excels in taking such subjects concerning the built environment and making them digestible.
However, in this latest effort written as a spinoff to a five-part public television series he is hosting this fall, Kostof is less successful. The fare is tasty, but after a few bites becomes bland. Whether it was the exigencies of the series, or the challenge to capture the sweep of the subject and its varied settings, or an attempt to reach out to a broader readership, "America by Design" as a history is not very insightful or filling.
If anything, the tour Kostof conducts for the reader of dwellings, factories, offices, stores, streets, places and spaces through history, nodding respectfully now and then to their designers and developers, is more like grazing architectural hors d'oeuvres. As such, they do stimulate an appetite for the subject. Perhaps that is all "America by Design" was designed to do.