An international gathering of eminent architects called "Working Group Habitat" worked very hard indeed during an intensive three-day conference that concluded here yesterday. The meeting produced sparks of possibility, but it also was shadowed by a sense of frustration from start to finish.

The main reason for the frustration is the continuing intractability of the world's housing problems--fairly serious in the industrialized countries, thoroughly alarming in much of the rest of the world.

A related reason, especially poignant for participants in this particular get-together, is the relative helplessness, in practical terms, of the architectural profession when confronting the Third World housing shortage.

James Morrison Leefe, a San Francisco architect who chaired the conference at the American Institute of Architects headquarters, sadly commented, "When you look at the need and then at the resources available to satisfy that need, all you can do is throw up your hands."

This is not to say that the meeting was without worth. It represented a lively exchange of opinion, a valuable contribution to an architectural debate that is, by necessity, becoming a global one. From this debate a new architectural ethic may emerge--not a style but an attitude, a guide to behavior applicable to societies the world over.

One of the main points of consensus pointed to a pervasive discontent, at once professional and popular, with massive, centralized, technocratic solutions to the housing problem. In slide after slide, from countries as diverse as Poland, Hungary, Holland, France, China, Indonesia and the United States, depressingly similar, large-scale and typically "modern" solutions to housing needs were shown. In statement after statement, the architects told of widespread social problems and public resentment resulting from such schemes. And in case after case, they demonstrated how things have changed in the last five years or so.

Again, the most important changes do not have to do with architectural styles. They concern architectural processes--how living places are designed, and for whom. There was, for instance, a widespread agreement that houses that truly enrich the lives of people who live in them must be designed with these people and not simply for them according to predetermined, universal principles.

This would seem to be simple common sense. For individuals who can afford to hire architects, of course, this is the way the system always has worked. For some people in developed countries, and for the large majority in the underdeveloped world, such common sense has been in short supply in the last four decades.

The implications of such a change in attitudes are far-reaching. It means a simultaneous focusing upon quality as well as quantity. It means adjusting to urban densities more in keeping with traditional patterns, and less attuned to speculative land values that "demand" super high-rise construction. It means housing people closer to workplaces and public, commercial and cultural services, instead of isolating the functions. It means increasing attention to local and regional considerations--geographical, climatic, cultural and stylistic--and to preservation and rehabilitation. It means concentrating more upon fitting the new with the old, rather than applying the drastic, worldwide standards of "urban renewal."

None of this is guaranteed, of course, though it is easier to foresee and to accomplish in the richer nations. It is much easier said than done elsewhere--in cities such as Mexico City, for example, where the population by the year 2000 is predicted to become 30 million. The most important disagreement in the conference probably concerned how to apply the ingenious technology of the modern world in humane ways to the pressing real-life needs of the Mexico Cities on our planet.

All architects design buildings and define spaces. Architects of conscience, a phrase that clearly characterizes the members of "Working Group Habitat," go one step further. They design environments for human beings to live in homes, neighborhoods, towns and cities.

But the housing problems of the world's poor nations are of such vast dimension, produced by social changes and conditions of such ponderous force--urbanization, population growth, unemployment, inequity, political instability and corruption, shortages of natural resources and human skills--that architects, like other mortals, are hard put to define their responsibilities in relation to the issues, much less solve them.

Mario Martin, an observer from Honduras representing the Organization of American States, noted that the "quantitative and qualitative" problems in housing point to the need for a "transfer of resources, funds and technical know-how" from the rich to the poor nations, a familiar Third World line that the developed world will ignore only at its peril.

The architects of the Working Group Habitat conference, which was sponsored by the International Union of Architects (in itself composed of about 90 national architectural associations), understandably approached these issues humbly, when they approached them at all. Most participants seemed to realize that talk is cheap and that expectations raised by previous international gatherings of this sort have been excessive.

Architects need some big help. Nothing short of a worldwide mobilization of political, social and economic forces can accomplish the great task. But architects can point the way. Auguste Arsac of France said it simply and well:

"We have to help, we have to save these people, who are men. If not, they will surely turn upon us. A physician takes care of a disabled man. We are kind of social physicians. It is our job to do this."