Charging that "all has gone wrong" in the process of designing a national memorial to veterans of the Korean War, a team of architects filed suit yesterday in federal court seeking an injunction to halt work on a "new, substituted" design for the memorial. The architects, whose competition-winning design was unveiled by President Bush in June 1989, also asked to be awarded more than $500,000 in damages.

Named as defendants in the four-count complaint were Cooper-Lecky Architects, a private firm, and three agencies of the federal government -- the Army Corps of Engineers, the American Battle Monuments Commission and the Korean War Veterans Memorial Advisory Board. Cooper-Lecky was accused of two counts of breach of contract and the advisory board with a count of "interference with contract." All the defendants were specified in the fourth count, requesting the injunction.

"A small group of very powerful people has quietly and systematically acted to throw out the winning design," contended Don Alvaro Leon, one of four members of the team from Pennsylvania State University, during a press conference announcing the legal action. "Never was there any indication that the competition was merely to seek concepts of a 'start point' for design," he said.

Retired Army Gen. Richard G. Stilwell, chairman of the Korean War Veterans Advisory Board, responded that he found the "entire complaint ... to be without legal merit." Kent Cooper, a principal in the Cooper-Lecky firm, said he was "very surprised that legal action would be taken in the middle of a very orderly review process. In fact, I think it's weird. I can't imagine the mentality that would do something like that."

The "prime problem," Stilwell said, was that the suit might interfere with the deadline established by Congress for progress on the memorial. Authorization for the memorial expires if no construction permit is issued by Oct. 28, 1991, five years after the legislation allowing the memorial was adopted.

The memorial is to be located in Ash Woods, an area of grass and trees southeast of the Lincoln Memorial, between the Reflecting Pool and Independence Avenue SW. Except for a federal payment of $500,000, the memorial is to be privately funded. Its total estimated cost, Stilwell said, is about $15 million.

A chief feature of the competition-winning design is a column of 38 statues of soldiers arranged in irregular file along a west-east axis, progressing toward a plaza with a standard flying the American flag as a centerpiece. Cooper-Lecky Architects was hired by the Army Corps of Engineers "to realize the design," in accordance with the rules of the competition, and the Penn State group was brought in as a consultant in the process.

The complaint filed in U.S. District Court here maintains that "other than the retention" of the column of soldiers in "seriously altered" form, the proposal by Cooper-Lecky constitutes "a totally new design." It also charges Cooper-Lecky with "failing to consult" with the winners "on numerous matters in a timely manner" or in "a meaningful way."

As they have done before, the Penn State architects yesterday characterized their design as a symbolic expression of "moving from peace, into the domain of war, return to peace, and reflection upon war." In contrast, Leon said, the Cooper-Lecky design depends on "ideas that glamorize and romanticize the act of war," alluding to the fact that in the Cooper-Lecky design several of the 38 figures are actively engaged in combat.

In addition, the complaint contends that the Korean War Veterans Advisory Board, a 12-member veterans group that also served as the jury for the competition with the advice of professional design consultants, exceeded its legal authority by "asserting an active role in the development and alteration" of the winning design and by instructing the other defendants "to ignore the consulting services" of the Penn State team.

The Cooper-Lecky design, supported by the National Park Service, has been approved by the American Battle Monuments Commission. By law, any design for the memorial also requires the approval of the Commission of Fine Arts, which last week postponed a decision, and the National Capital Planning Commission.