Ask almost any child of about 5 or 6 years to draw a house, and in return you will likely receive the prettiest picture--a simple box seen head-on, topped by a triangular, pitched-roof gable. The proportions and details may vary--bushes, chimneys, number of windows--but the basic shape is always the same.

About a decade ago artist Carole Bolsey began focusing on this shape in her paintings--highly charged canvases in which rudimentary houses or barns are isolated in fields, blistered by intense color and casting dramatic, deep shadows. Tautly structured yet executed with decisive, swift sweeps of the brush, Bolsey's paintings imbue the basic form with a powerful yet mysterious significance.

This is a quality Bolsey's sophisticated paintings share with many a house drawn by a child. It is as if the form and all the complex associations that go with it possess a grip on the collective imagination--as if it were a primal archetype of the kind theorized by psychiatrist-philosopher Carl Jung.

Fascinated by the seemingly built-in intensity of the form, Bolsey began to collect evidence of its universality. She snapped photographs on her travels in the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia, and collected images from books. Such images, mounted on simple cardboard panels, give an extra dimension to the current exhibition at the headquarters of the American Institute of Architects, 1735 New York Ave. NW--"A Shape Without a Name: Works on a Theme by Carole Bolsey."

We Americans tend to think of the form as quintessentially American, and, in a way, it is. Visions of pitched-roof barns or farmhouses in mountains and rolling countryside are practically seared into the national consciousness. But as Bolsey amply demonstrates here, the form is familiar all across the globe in cultures both ancient and contemporary.

What else is the Parthenon, that most renowned symbol of ancient Greek civilization, than, in Bolsey's words, a "prismatic polyhedron with four sides and a peaked roof"? So, too, is a Bangkok bus station pictured here, and an Alaskan salmon-drying shed, a Utah mining complex, Japan's ancient Ise Shrine, an African king's shed, a grass-roofed 18th-century Icelandic farmhouse . . . and so on.

In a sense, this is easy to explain. The pitched roof provides headroom and allows gravity to draw off water and snow. The form is stable and relatively simple to construct in many different materials. It adapts well to changes in scale--it works for both doghouses and cathedrals. In other words, there's nothing mysterious about the phenomenon.

On the other hand, Bolsey is correct in her belief that there is something quite majestic and magical about the familiarity of the form and its spread across human time and space. The exhibition, open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, will continue through June 18. Bolsey will give a talk at the AIA at 6 p.m. on June 10.

CAPTION: Carole Bolsey's paintings convey the spare sophistication of this universal shape for buildings.