"You're supposed to yell timber," said a man as his friend knocked over a potted fern. The fern was doomed from the start, being an innocent bystander in a room too small for the number of people crammed into it.

Most of them architects, gathered here from across the country for a conference sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, the professional and lobbying organization that represents 36,000 of them.

After a day spent discussing legislative issues -- such as getting governments contracts -- more than a thousand of them went to a reception in the caucus room of the Cannon House Office Building. The scaffolding in one corner of the room was not intended as a party decoration, explained Capitol architect George White, but rather was in place for the restoration currently under way.

Several skilled painters have half finished carefully restoring the coffered ceiling in red, green, white, gold and beige paint, where there had been only sloppy grey and white before. Being half done, the grand room looked rather like a dowager without her makeup.

"George, that green on the base of the Indian looks beautiful!" said former Rep. Charles Vanik of Ohio, greeting White.

"It's not an Indian, Charlie," said White, referring to the statue on top of the Capitol dome, which has also recently been repainted. "It's an allegorical statue of freedom. But thank you."

"And the West Front looked magnificent [at the inauguration]," Vanik continued. "Was that your idea?"

White nodded modestly.

"I've never seen the Capitol looking so beautiful," Vanik said. He retired after 26 years in Congress, but said he often stops by the Hill for parties such as this because it's close to the the Metro.

"When I was a congressman, I had a parking space. Now I take the Metro," he said cheerfully. "I have discovered there is a life after Congress, and it's just fine."

Meanwhile, the architects fought toward the bars and buffet table like travelers caught at National Airport at Christmas.

"This is like combat," one muttered.