Architecture is an art, a craft, a business. It is a vehicle for personal expression, a dependency of technology and engineering, a function of other forces such as zoning ordinances and the needs of individual, institutional or corporate clients. It is at once a personal, a collaborative and a civic enterprise. It exists simultaneously in the marketplaces of ideas and of money.

All of these facets -- and others -- are revealed in "Give Us Your Best: An Exhibition of Washington Architects' Work," which opened yesterday at the National Building Museum. As the title suggests, this is an egalitarian show. Members of the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects were invited to present examples of their recent work. All comers were accepted; the only restriction was that displays be confined to one 34-by-34-inch panel.

Eighty-eight firms submitted work, and of course, responses varied widely. The larger, established firms tended to summarize, presenting boards replete with images of different finished buildings. Some of the smaller firms followed suit, while others opted to concentrate on one or two projects. New office and residential projects predominate, but there are plenty of restorations, additions and transformations in both categories. Plus, there are churches, cloisters, educational facilities, public buildings, shops, restaurants, gardens, town plans.

It is a refreshing exhibition for all of its imprecision, handsomely laid out in a spacious second-floor gallery. Simply bringing together the work of so many architects in a single room is no mean achievement. Architects are a competitive lot and, as entrepreneurs, they like to do their selling directly to clients behind closed doors. The exhibition in effect is a form of architectural discourse all too rare in this city.

The overall intellectual context for the exhibition is context. That is, it is Washington architecture of the 1980s, a decade in which contextualism reigned supreme as an identifiable citywide approach to architecture and urbanism.

As demonstrated here time and again, the virtues of this approach include a reintroduction of non-arbitrary stylistic variety into the design of major commercial buildings, a renewed respect for architectural history as a source for contemporary design, an awareness of existing building heights, materials and textures as starting points for new architecture, a vigorous shaping of the typical Washington box, a consistent respect for existing street patterns and, in general, for the life of the street.

It is especially rewarding to review how Washington architects frequently managed to avoid the self-conscious excesses associated with much postmodern architecture. More often than not those represented here preferred to play their architectural history in a fairly straightforward manner. This seems as true in residential as in commercial architecture. In a series of projects from 1985 to the present, the firm of Muse-Wiedemann, to cite one example, demonstrates a fine touch with a variety of appropriate styles without resorting to copies.

And yet, one can turn the coin and look at the faults. The populist preservation movement (and the city's relatively stringent preservation law) greatly influenced architectural thinking and practice, but most thoughtful preservationists and architects began some time ago to question the ethical and aesthetic efficacy of some of the decade's favored solutions, particularly the notion of saving facades more or less as mere fronts for huge new buildings. The very size of many of the new projects, even the better-designed among them, creates disturbing problems.

There is, too, the issue of smugness. Although the new set of design rules was created in response to blatant insensitivities of standard architectural and planning practices of the postwar era, it carries its own blind spots. These have become more obvious with time: veneration of the old simply because of its age, and a related, deep-seated hostility to fresh ideas. For instance, the notion of designing by contrast, rather than by a more ostensible contextual fit, has been very nearly outlawed. Washington contextualism, for all of its benefits, is in itself becoming a formula with all of the resultant traps.

History, of course, has a way of responding to such conditions. Entrenched positions in architecture, as in other intellectual pursuits, stimulate opposition. Hence the timeliness of this exhibition, as we enter the century's final decade: It unveils for the first time a reaction to prevailing dogmas among a dozen or so firms founded during the mid- to late '80s. Based on the evidence here, this reaction is as yet unsystematic -- indeed, it is quite tentative -- but unquestionably it is healthy and bodes well.

Three examples: Stokoe Callison's addition to a Northwest Washington school, which responds to the original building in simple, adept, poetic and contrasting terms; Rixey-Rixey's house for a private client in Richmond, which creatively transforms a difficult sloping site and is, at once, very modern and very allusive in the postmodern way; and Vytenis Gureckas's entry for an "innovations in housing" competition, which in plan and form responds to contemporary living habits and to the (somewhat) American dream of a "machine in a garden."

By nice chance, since the panels are arranged alphabetically, Gureckas's entry is exhibited next to that of Winthrop Faulkner & Partners, an old-line Washington firm that maintained its faith in modern architecture throughout the '80s. Although the accidental suggestion of old allegiances being reconfirmed is misleading, the strongest aspects of the new work nonetheless involve a reinterpretation of modern architecture with the lessons of the '80s firmly kept in mind, and a refusal to hide contemporary uses behind historical veneers.

In its entirety the exposition is of course more complex than this account suggests. There is good work that does not neatly fit the above categories, and lots of information of interest even to casual observers of the local architectural scene. Much of the work produced locally is not local -- KressCox's art museum in Columbus, Ga., and David Schwarz's extraordinary mixed-use complex in Hollywood, Calif., are two outstanding examples.

Fortunately, the exhibition is rounded out by free-standing displays. There are a few exemplary models -- one can see here, for instance, what the new World Bank complex will look like when done -- and several superb pieces of architect-designed furniture. Favorites among the latter include a splendid folding corner chair by Bill Spack (of KressCox) and elegant tables of differing pedigrees by Adamstein & Demetriou and by David Schwarz.

Great credit is due to the spirited group of organizers, the 1990 Design Committee of the local AIA chapter, chaired by Victoria Rixey. There is a catalogue, with a page for each entry and an introduction by Deborah Dietsch, editor in chief of Architecture magazine. She concludes with a daunting challenge: "Edge cities" such as Tysons Corner and Crystal City "will be the real testing ground for Washington's architectural manners." The exhibition continues through Dec. 2. It should become a biennial, or a triennial, event.