Hotels are a special part of city life.

I suppose this is a well-known fact. Our politicians and planners often talk about it, although they usually speak about economic benefits: tax revenues, jobs, numbers of tourists attracted and serviced.

These are important considerations, but not the ones I have in mind. Hotels are--or, more precisely, can be--the essence of being in the city. Hotel lobbies can be the best urban places in the world, gathering spots where people meet, converse, do business, shop, eat, drink and absorb the pulse of life around them. In addition, hotels can be very wonderful architectural spaces.

It is perhaps simple wistfulness to think this way in the face of a world-wide blight of hotel "accommodations" stamped from a mold, where the curse of uniformly bad taste and bad, if profitable, architecture deadens the mind and obliterates one's sense of expectancy. The Washington area shares in this blight but thankfully there are exceptions, both old and new.

There is, for instance, the Shoreham Hotel. Thatterrific old building overlooking Rock Creek Park may not be much to look at on the outside--the point is arguable--but its great public space, the lobby that cascades gently down the hill, remains a relic of an age of grand hotels.

The Shoreham, designed by Joseph Abel and completed in 1930, clearly has had its ups and downs in the past 15 years. But its magnificent lobby has been saved, and in some ways improved, in a conscientious restoration ordered by its new owners, the Dunfey hotel chain, under the overall supervision of Patrick Ahearn of Ahearn Schopfer of Boston.

One can be thankful for certain details of the enterprise (the painstakingly restored delicate floral murals on ceilings and vaults) and dismayed by others (are the new chandeliers and sconces really an improvement on the old ones?). But it is the space itself that really counts: that clear, graceful progression from wide entrance lobby (itself a thoughtful addition of the mid-'50s) to a crossing distinguished by eliptical arches and shallow vaults, down to the high-ceilinged, beautifully planted, mirror-walled Garden Court restaurant and bar.

This is good architecture, indeed, and it manages effortlessly to fulfill the first item of what Alan Lapidus once described as the "two-sided function" of hotels: "To make people enjoy themselves." As partner and son to Morris Lapidus, who literally invented the sophisticated postwar kitsch of Miami Beach, the man has credentials.

As for his second function--"to be financially viable for the people who own them"--one can be hopeful. If the Shoreham's present owners turn a good profit, they may be enticed to do something right about the hotel's back yard, once a spectacular exterior "room," now simply an unkempt stretch of concrete which terminates unceremoniously with a couple of tennis courts.

Another fine leftover from the grand age of hotels is the pleasant walkway that courses an entire block through the ground floor of the Mayflower Hotel, a genuine interior "street." An even finer example still awaits sympathetic restoration--the great Peacock Alley in the decrepit Willard Hotel, the grandeur of which can be vaguely glimpsed through grimy glass panes on F Street.

Unfortunately, most of the newer hotels are unspeakable creations equipped with 24-hour ice machines, solid mattresses, functional plumbing and not a touch of good taste, good space, good architecture or even whimsical kitsch.

A few, however, have made some attempt. Although six years old, the Hyatt Regency probably is the best of the newer establishments. Big, clean and awfully dull on the outside, it boasts an interior courtyard that functions quite nicely as an urban entertainment even though it is hardly more than a knockoff of the original John Portman idea.

Luckily, Portman's idea was a good one, a fresh wind in hotel/urban design that came out of Atlanta 13 years ago. The basic strength of the idea, which Portman and his many followers have since converted into an international cliche', is to reintroduce the idea of spaciousness and urban life into hotel design by making dramatic, wide-open interior atriums the centers of hotel activity.

This flexible formula can be applied inventively (Portman's own Renaissance Center Hotel in Detroit is a giddy tour de force) or poorly (in Houston, as applied by an architect whose name I'd prefer not to know, it is gigantism at its mindless worst). Washington's Hyatt Regency (by Welton Becket Associates), where service functions are concentrated on the outer edges and the main activities of strolling, meeting, sitting and looking are ingeniously channeled toward the center, falls somewhere in between.

This also can be said of the new Hyatt Regency in Baltimore (by RTKL & Associates, Chicago), a building sheathed in mirror glass wherein the lobby, restaurants and corridors are cleverly terraced to create a variety of views and, in places, a floating sense of space. The best thing about this Baltimore hotel, though, is its location: connected by ramp to Harborplace, it adds yet another piece to that tremendously successful, planned urban puzzle.

But, perhaps, it is an idea whose time has come and gone. One or two Portmanesque atriums per city are certainly sufficient, and surely in Washington we've had about enough: I'm sure my contentment would be shared if the gaudy Sheraton Washington Hotel (Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, architects), whose space-framed atrium provides titillation but no lasting pleasure, were the last of the genre. After all, the most elegant, mind- and eye-bending Portmanesque space in the world was created here not long ago by I.M. Pei in the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art.

There are, of course, other models. Hotels don't have to be big to serve desirable urban purposes, and the city has any number of hotels whose architects acknowledged that a sense of place can be as interesting, in its ways, as a sense of space: the Hay-Adams, the Sheraton Carlton, the tiny Tabard Inn, to mention a few.

Some of the newer hotels in this vein do not quite measure up. At the Ramada Renaissance, a reconditioned apartment building on New Hampshire Avenue NW, architect Carl Huff of HTB Inc. pulled some tricks out of the Morris Lapidus bag (Deco-style lamps hanging from side-lit circular openings in the ceiling, stepped terraces to differentiate spaces) to create a mildly welcoming ambiance. But his spaces make no great sense and his hand with gold trim was a bit heavy. The end result, I'm afraid, is an ambitious mish-mash.

By contrast, the flow of space in the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, architects) is subdued and pleasant, making it an unusually quiet place to meet and greet. One gets the feeling that these architects were looking back in time beyond Portman, not such a bad idea.

If the oft-predicted hotel building boom does materialize, the developers who will finance the boom and the architects who design it could do a lot worse than to spend an hour or so in the new bar at the old Shoreham, where urbanity mixes so easily with architectural excellence.