The new Vista International Hotel doesn't really look like Washington and doesn't really feel like Washington. Not on the outside, not on the inside. It looks and feels like a building from some other place--Houston, perhaps, or Atlanta or California--that somehow found its way to downtown M Street.

This first (and probably lasting) impression is not altogether a bad thing. The high interior atrium is an intriguing, showy space, a feat of architectural ingenuity unlike any other in the city. Vive la diffe'rence. But this splashy sort of modernism works much less well on the outside where a different set of standards apply.

The very fact that a 413-room luxury hotel exists in this particular place is an amazement, and a tribute to the architectural team of Henry Holle of Holle & Graff, Washington, and Wayne Williams of Smith and Williams, Los Angeles.

The mid-block location at 1400 M St. NW could hardly be less propitious: Not only does the building face north, away from the monuments, but to the west and east the view is cut off by buildings (the Madison Hotel on one side and a new ribbon-window office structure on the other). The only vista to the south is an office building across a narrow alley. The architects could not literally rise above these constraints, of course, because of the city's height limitation. (In this it is, thank goodness, a very Washington building.)

Good architecture is often good because architects find ways to turn necessities of site, size, budget and use into virtues. Sky-high interior atriums by now are something of a cliche' in the hotel trade, of course, so the 14-story skylit court of the Vista is nothing new except in Washington, where the truncated atrium of the Hyatt Regency near Capitol Hill is its only hotel precedent.

But in this case the atrium was not just an idea. It was a necessity, the one way the architects could fit a lot of rooms into a tight place and simultaneously make sure most of the rooms had views, albeit interior views.

The building is basically a U-shaped structure backed onto a narrow lot. Most of the rooms face directly on the resulting open space. Corridors are pushed to the outer walls. This inspiration solved one problem and created another: how to make the interior interesting from ground level and from above while accommodating the multiple functions of a hotel.

One of the great attractions of the hotel atrium, true even before John Portman revived the concept in his pacesetting Hyatt Regency in Atlanta, is that the myriad activities of guests and staff become the chief source of entertainment. Visitors to the dramatic space are at once audience and part of the show. In practice this doesn't always work out so well--the spaces can be too big, too empty, too glitzy, too much--but it works in the new Vista because the architects knew just what they were doing.

The comparatively small Vista atrium doesn't provide the gee-whiz jolt of, for instance, the huge courtyard in the center of the new Hart Senate Office Building. This is partly a function of the cramped Vista site and it is all to the good: Gee whiz usually turns out to be so what after awhile.

Instead of the vacuous big sculpture so often employed to break down these wide open interior spaces, Williams conceived a free-standing eight-story tower that does the same job, and then goes one better by doubling as a functional part of the hotel. The tower, sheathed in black reflective glass with white balconies, houses six "executive suites" (one per floor) and, on its mezzanine level, the Givenchy Lounge (so-called because it was designed, like the suites, by French couturier Hubert de Givenchy). Open at ground level, it forms a warm entryway to other parts of the hotel.

The tower is a terrific stroke. It establishes a sense of scale because, as Williams says, "You can't focus your eyes on the tower and the sides of the courtyard at the same time." By occupying so much space it makes the atrium seem more vertical and more interesting than it otherwise would be. And it says hotel better than any sculpture could because it is part of the hotel.

Elsewhere, the architects conduct a no-holds-barred campaign against monotony. The spaces, interesting to walk through, sit in or look at from above, flow easily from one to another. Three of the five restaurants or bars are at least partly situated in the open. The atrium walls are broken with a nonstop sequence of glass balconies and bay windows. Lighting is effective, and very pretty at night. Plantings are many and large. Colors, materials and textures run through a long list of changes: lush browns, light tans and sharp whites on the walls, alternating with tinted or clear glass windows; pastel spot rugs to play against a multihued brick floor; polished marble pillars and wood-paneled bridges, and . . . lots more. (The interior design firm of Graham-Solano of Boston contributed significantly to these effects, as did Givenchy in the tower.)

It is an effective performance, not so restless as it may sound, despite unfortunate details: opaque doors that cut off the light at the end of tunneled hallways; generally plain-spoken window systems; drywall ineffectively textured to look like concrete; splotchy coloring on the exterior pre-cast concrete panels. Inside, these things matter much less than outside, where they become just one more discordant note on a blah facade that somehow manages to be both boring and offensive.

To be sure the Vista's neighbors on either side gave no encouraging clue, other than height, as to what might constitute a worthwhile way to face a Washington street. So, looking no further, the architects simply went their own way, expressing internal functions in the elements of the fac,ade. The centerpiece, slightly off-center for functional reasons, is a strong, in-and-out metal-and-glass wall that shows off the atrium (although not to very good advantage). This is framed by slightly projecting concrete towers that contain fire stairwells and other service functions, as well as banks of rooms. The fac,ade ends with a dud on either side with humdrum window rows.

The entranceway doesn't work very well either, at least for pedestrians, although the problem of accommodating both pedestrians and cars on the mid-block site was, indeed, a humdinger.

The architects might well ask, well, what do you expect? The answer is, something better, something that echoes the architectural qualities of harmony and elegance in which the city abounds. Or something even that better reflects the ingenuity and sense of place they created on the inside of the hotel. Admittedly these wishes are potentially contradictory. To pull them together and make a building of genuine dignity and presence would have been a tremendous challenge. It is just the sort of problem that rationalist, problem-solving, modernist architects do not solve easily. Williams as much as dismissed it when he said he "didn't want to play the game of fac,adism."

The result is a rather poor fac,ade. On the inside the same approach, applied with more verve, produced a real hotel.