In the beginning there was shelter. In caves, under rocks. Then, someone organized a couple of palm branches to make a hut, and suddenly there was architecture. And because there was imagination and fantasy, the architecture became art.

Dickson Carroll, a Washington-area architect, is a product of that flow of ideas. His reality is the buildings he designs in his day-to-day business. His fantasies -- playful plans for buildings, towers and facades and even furniture -- take the form of sculpture on exhibit at the McIntosh/Drysdale Gallery, 406 Seventh St, NW.

It's an intriguing exhibition of unusual and unlikely forms: a lifeguard platform that is topped with a tower of sea-life forms reaching out into the sky; a curving, organic Art Neuveau-like "Storefront" that is an entrance to a movie theater or office located in the middle of a block and having no other outlet to daylight; a series of surrealistic New York subway entrances, including projects for "Downtown" and "Midtown."

Carroll's craftsmanship in these wood works is superb. And one of the distinguishing features of the pieces is his use of bright color on the facades and the towers -- lime green, pink-purple, sky blue against a field of honey-colored natural wood.

Sharing the gallery is Michael McCall, a young area painter whose subject matter for his abstract works is the sand and the sea. He has spent a good deal of time near the beach, from Key West to Maine, and incorporates a patterning and sense of the land into each of the paintings.

In some he paints with acrylic directly onto unstretched dacron sailcloth -- the fabric itself being one of the many links to the shore life. In others, he incorporates sand into the paint, and the thick, gritty texture becomes a part of his subject in the same way that the abstract expressionists made the nature of the paint a subject.

The works are organized into a structure that he uses in nearly all of the rectangular or square pieces. A ribbon of crisscrossed paint strokes goes around all sides of the painting, and the central field is left open for some gentle geometrics and squiggly surreal forms.

His colors range from the earthy browns to less natural purples, blues and reds, and the overall effect is of an artist struggling with the questions of patterning, design and abstraction in general. They are successful works that make one look forward to McCall's upcoming show at the WPA, scheduled to open as this one closes Tuesday.

There is occasionally an exhibit so gentle and understated that its quiet is a welcome change from the hard questions and tumultuous explorations that are so frequent in contemporary art. An exhibition now at the Touchstone Gallery, 2130 P St. NW, of gouache and ink on paper by Lois Beatty, and porcelain sculpture by Rima Schulkind, is that kind of show.

Beatty has a soft and elegant touch with color. Spare strokes of intense hues intersect easily on the open fields of the white paper. The construction and the color are matched perfectly for some extremely satisfying works. Schulkind, too, exhibits an elegance in these oh-so-thin porcelain works. She constructs forms out of petal-shaped pieces of the porcelain, petals that overlap and build up the forms with a defiance of their own delicacy. The exhibition is on view through tomorrow.

The message is the medium at Middendorf/Lane Gallery, 2009 Columbia Rd. Nw, where the medium is print-making. It's a mini-inventory of prints by some 20th-century American artists, obviously not an attempt at a comprehensive survey in the 30 works, but a sampling. It is a sampling of the tried and true, but there is always something new to be seen in Frank Stella's "Sinjerli Variations," the 1977 lithographs of interlocking protractors; Jasper Johns' 1975 lithographs, "Four panels from Untitled," incorporating the overall composition of cross-hatching and flagstones; Chuck Close's intense black-and-white 1979 etching of his "Self-Portrait."

In addition to these recent works, there is a beautiful Edward Hopper etching called "Evening Wind," which captures the essential moment of a woman alone in a drab room just as the wind pushes in through the open windows; a striking Thomas Hart Benton "Jesse James"; and Milton Avery's elegant "Fantail Pigeon." The exhibition is on view through Jan. 15.