Washington, a city of monuments, has been throughout its history a place of monumental conflicts. This inevitable fact in no way reduces the seriousness of the debate concerning present-day additions to the long list, but it does, somehow, set them in perspective.

As the controversy surrounding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial attests, in nearly 200 years of trying we have discovered no universal solution to the complex problem of designing a public monument or memorial that is both esthetically satisfying and symbolically appropriate.

Despite the abrasive struggle, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has been a veritable clipper ship of efficiency. Scarcely more than two years elapsed between passage of the congressional authorizing resolution and groundbreaking in Constitution Gardens last spring: more than likely an all-time record.

By contrast, the proposed Naval Memorial Bandstand-Arch on Pennsylvania Avenue unquestionably set the record for futility and the speed with which it appeared and disappeared from the scene.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, funds for which were authorized by Congress just this week, has been gestating for more than a quarter of a century, during which four different designs have generated millions of words in praise or abuse. For better or for worse, this is typical of Washington's monuments.

Consider the case of the Washington Monument, a record-breaker by any means of accounting. Defeated British troops had yet to complete their withdrawal from the New World in August 1783, when the Continental Congress resolved to erect a monument to the victorious general. The solid aluminum capstone for the giant stone obelisk that finally emerged was not set in place until 1884, during a raging December storm.

Though none of the city's other major monuments took a century to see the final light, almost all of them took a long, long time to pass through the mills of parsimony and controversy that are predictable parts of the process. The designs for several of them, too, were changed substantially, and not always for the worse.

The final, simple, inspiring form of the Washington Monument itself owes little to the original 1836 design by Robert Mills and much to the expertise of Lt. Col. Thomas L. Casey of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the diligence of George Perkins Marsh, our envoy to Italy. The Mills design foresaw a rather flat-topped obelisk rising from a circular colonnade, 100 feet high and 600 feet in circumference, its entrance guarded by the general himself commanding a Greek chariot drawn by four massive steeds.

For lack of money, construction was halted for 22 years, during which many an exotic scheme was concocted to "improve" its design. Pecunious appropriations and economical good sense guided Casey when completion of the monument was entrusted to him in a rush of congressional patriotism stimulated by the centennial celebration in 1876. He shored up the inadequate foundations and followed Marsh's research into the history of obelisk proportions. Thus the pyramid at the top cuts an angle of 60 degrees and the monument soars to a height of 555 feet 5 1/8 inches, almost exactly 10 times its width at the base--a vast improvement in Mills' overripe design.

If the final, and somewhat accidental, abstract form of the great obelisk is a hard act to follow in terms of urban design, symbolic presence and monumental force, its troubled history set high standards, too, for vitriolic controversy. For sure, no monument since has been invaded, as this one was, by misguided patriots who vowed to complete it as "an American institution, supported by all Americans."

What is really fascinating about the history of monument building in this city is that in almost every case, whether the final product resulted from a competition or a commission, certain clear divisions occur: professional standards versus popular taste, modernity versus tradition, abstract symbolism versus realist representation. The results have been mixed, in more ways than one. There are triumphs for each side, and failures.

The case for abstraction is most convincingly demonstrated by the Washington Monument, for realism by Henry Merwin Shrady's magnificent Civil War ensemble, culminating in the moody equestrian figure of Gen. Grant, at the eastern end of the Mall. The first was an inspired accident, the second a tedious, long labor.

Shrady worked furiously on his bronze statues for 20 years; he went to famous lengths to assure their physical veracity--he dissected horses, he joined the New York National Guard, he watched West Point cadets go through artillery and cavalry drills arranged especially for him. An interesting footnote, parallel to the selection of the young Maya Ying Lin's design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, is that Shrady was unknown when he won the Grant competition over far more prestigious artists. This, too, caused a furor.

Either by intention of their designers or as a result of politcal pressure, many of the major monuments in the city are compromises between the poles of the continuing debate. The most successful of these stylistically and symbolically mixed metaphors is the Lincoln Memorial, where Daniel Chester French's brooding, monumental, realistic portrait sculpture of the great man sits in studied contrast to Henry Bacon's idealistic Greek temple. In their different ways the Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt memorials are lesser examples of similar impulses to combine contrasting concepts and styles. The tendency reaches an incomparable nadir in the bathetic Boy Scout Memorial near the Ellipse.

Whatever their esthetic differences, Bacon and French, architect and artist, shared important values concerning the elevating role of public art, and they worked beautifully together. They belonged to a generation--indeed, to a sort of talented, upper-crust club--to which the issues of public, monumental, memorial architecture and art were an open book. They had the talent, the style, the self-confidence and the connections.

Architects of this generation participated in an abortive competition during the 1920s for a Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, proposed for the swampy site where the Jefferson Memorial now stands. Photographs of the entries, on file at the Fine Arts Commission, reveal the uniform taste of the time: grand structures, all, skillfully deployed with the embellishments of the preferred classic revival style, including vast allegorical statuary programs. John Russell Pope won this competition with a scheme distinguished even in this company for its enormous size and scope. Cost apparently was no object, and the idea, fortunately, was allowed to rest in peace.

This comfortable consensus is long gone, of course, and a new one is yet to be found: Witness the long roller-coaster ride of the FDR memorial. Two thoroughly modern, abstract schemes for the huge monument--Pederson and Tilney's competition-winning entry calling for eight high tablet-like concrete steles and Marcel Breuer's commissioned design with its striking pinwheel arrangement of triangular granite slabs--bit the dust before Lawrence Halprin's garden-walk concept for West Potomac Park (much reduced from its original length of some 3,000 feet) gained official approval.

It is interesting to note that Pederson and Tilney attempted to save their design, if not improve it, by scaling down the steles somewhat and by inserting a realistic statue of the president within the memorial. This compromise actually received approval, in a split vote, from the Commission of Fine Arts, but it failed to win the hearts of the Roosevelt family, whose announced preference for a garden-like solution finally won the day.

If the debate over Lin's earth-hugging design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial reflects a time-honored pattern it is, if anything, even more intense because the subject itself is so difficult and so close in time. The politically inspired design compromise, adding realistic statues to the abstract design, obviously is not without precedent but clearly it is chancy.

It remains to be seen what the sculptor, Frederick Hart, comes up with, and what the Veterans Committee proposes in the way of size, texture, massing, placement and scale in relation to the site and to the long open "V" of Lin's design--all matters of crucial importance. The truth remains that the memorial will stand nobly on its own without them.