FOR A COURSE in historic preservation that he taught to architecture students at the University of Maryland last fall, Richard Etlin took the practical approach. He focused attention on actual buildings in the Washington area, and he brought in, as guest lecturers, living contenders in the great preservation debate: architects, preservationists, lawyers, planners, developers.

"It was fascinating week after week to hear different points of view about the same problem," recalls Etlin, a 35-year-old scholar whose specialty is 18th-century French funerary architecture and Italian architecture between the two wars, anxious to have a more up-to-date impact.

The experience confirmed his intention to publish a popular, regional journal devoted to the main architectural issues of today. The result is Design Action, a bimonthly publication that came out late last month and only now is reaching about 22,000 persons to whom it was distributed, free, as an initial gambit to attain the necessary paid circulation.

One of the principal ideas behind the journal, Etlin says, is to "encourage dialogue" between parties to the raging design disputes that daily are shaping the places we work and spaces we occupy. This is a much-needed function in an area where many of these important decisions are made in private, leading to a sense of powerlessness and indifference, or are forged in the adversary process of planning and review that often leads to a hardening of positions -- the opposite of genuine dialogue.

The first issue of Design Action is a promising performance. It is a handsome, crisply edited, 16-page, tabloid-size journal packed with information and opinion. It addresses such subjects as recent architecture in Baltimore and Washington, trends in suburban development, historic districts in downtown D.C., preservation law and technology, and "Baltimore Art Deco," an article with two touring maps. (The latter is planned as a regular feature, with a different focus for each appearance.)

The regional emphasis results from Etlin's observation that the national professional journals tend to publish works by the same architects over and over, and his conviction that "if we are going to produce an architecture of real distinction it will come in response to local conditions." The interdisciplinary approach comes naturally to Etlin, a witness to the narrowing of vision that afflicts professionals in all fields, whose education at Princeton (bachelor's, master's and PhD degrees) encouraged respect for the abiding idea of the liberal arts that the whole is greater than the parts.

In other words, Design Action is a specialized journal that tries hard to avoid the common temptations of the genre: incomprehensible jargon, long theoretical harangues and incestuous attention to fashionable credos and creators.

Making a go of such a worthy enterprise is a chancy proposition. So far, Etlin and colleagues who founded Architectural Arts of Washington, D.C., the nonprofit organization that actually publishes the journal, have had excellent support from local institutions and architectural firms. The National Building Museum donated office space in its splendid 19th-century edifice, the old Pension Building, and that lengthy initial mailing list resulted from the enthusiastic response of about 25 architectural, planning and design organizations. The Washington office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill donated money and design services, and Patricia Moore of Arthur Cotton Moore Associates has volunteered to spearhead a fund drive.

Just as important has been the response of the federal government. The inaugural issue and its ambitious distribution was funded by a $15,000 grant (matched with volunteer time and services) from the National Endowment for the Arts, which followed up with another grant of $25,000 to ensure publication of the next six issues, the first of which will appear in November. But, says Etlin, "To stay afloat we're going to have to match this grant with cash. "In fact, if there is one point I'd like to make perfectly clear it is that this is not a complementary endeavor."

The current issue of Design Action is on sale at several Smithsonian and private bookstores for $2 per copy. Subscription envelopes ($12 per year) are tucked discreetly -- perhaps a bit too discreetly -- into the new publication. It seems a small price to pay.