The word "campus" has strong visual and emotive connotations. We visualize a campus as a place set apart from everyday reality, a contemplative world defined by grass, trees and buildings of a certain age and distinction--a family of buildings.

Designing a campus from scratch is thus both an extraordinary opportunity and a daunting challenge. There have been great successes--Thomas Jefferson's Lawn at the University of Virginia, Frederick Law Olmsted's master plan for Stanford University--but they are both rare and intimidating.

The newest example in the Washington area--the Prince William County campus of George Mason University--is still very much a work in progress, but enough of it is taking shape to give us a sense of what its character will be.

Just a couple of years ago the campus consisted of rented rooms in the Bull Run Shopping Center. But next month, the huge Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center will be dedicated, the third building in three years on the flat, forested land near Manassas. Soon the total will climb to 3 1/2: In October, a new 300-seat auditorium will be ready for use, appended rather dramatically to the front of 1997's Academic Building I.

The campus is the third installment of George Mason's "dispersed university"--a sequence of campuses intended to respond to local needs. (The others are the main campus in Fairfax--GMU officials hate the word "main"--and the law school complex in Arlington.)

It is safe to say the Prince William campus will not remotely resemble Jefferson's classic "academical" village or Olmsted's monumental arrangement of palm trees and arched arcades in California. Rather, it will be like . . . a Northern Virginia office-industrial park.

This may not be as bad as it sounds.

To be precise, the idea is that the 124-acre campus will become the research-pumping heart of Innovation Park, a sprawling enclave of high-tech and biotech firms Prince William County planners fondly hope for. (Such hopes may be fulfilled. Several major organizations, including the American Type Culture Collection, the world's largest collection of living biological cultures, have signed on.)

In terms of urban pattern, we all know what an industrial park means. As seen from a nearby 6-, 8- or 10-lane highway, the typical office park appears as a loose cluster or extended string of mid-rise buildings popping above the trees. From closer up, the buildings inevitably are approached across the asphalt or concrete parking lots that surround them.

By and large, architectural standards are not high. The polite mediocrity of most Northern Virginia office parks can lull you to sleep, or make you throw up your hands in exasperation. The occasional attention-grabbing high-rise with a glazed rooftop archway--or whatever--only emphasizes the dearth of imagination.

To judge by what is built and planned on the new campus, it seems clear that the basic arrangement will not break that mold. It will be as thoroughly auto-dependent as everything around it and, if built to its predicted "magnet" size of 10 to 15 buildings with 1.4 million square feet of space, it will contribute significantly to the region's continuing sprawl.

Architecturally, however, the outlook is modestly upbeat. With the constant prodding of Reid Herlihy, vice president for facilities, the university's recent practice has been to hire top-notch design firms for its new buildings.

In and of itself, this change is praiseworthy. In Virginia, as in many other states, the customary practice for state contracts has been to hire year after year from a tired list of local firms that meet certain bureaucratic requirements--guaranteeing mediocrity at best. Herlihy argues that "you get better value" with respected architects heading the design teams.

Unarguably, you get better architecture. Better, but not necessarily best. Budgetary and bureaucratic constraints continue to dampen the creative spark, and sometimes hotshot out-of-town designers don't bring their best games to the local ballpark.

Academic Building I, for instance, completed in 1997, is not exactly an advertisement for architectural excellence, yet it was designed by the Architects Collaborative--the Cambridge, Mass., firm started after World War II by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius--working here with Virginia's Dewberry & Davis Architects.

Building I--a multipurpose, four-story building for laboratories, classrooms, conference rooms, offices and a cafeteria--is a sort of overblown, middling affair. Everything works and all the design moves make sense, but nothing about the building--except perhaps the volumetric new auditorium addition, designed by Dewberry & Davis--lifts the spirit, or teases the mind, or does anything exceptional.

Things get better. Academic Building II, completed last year, is a nifty piece of work. Designed by the Polshek Partnership of New York (with Tobey + Davis of Reston), it too is a multiuse building--half of the space, in fact, is assigned to the American Type Culture Collection, with which the university has formed an unusual research partnership. (Tobey + Davis also designed the sleekly attractive new ATCC headquarters nearby.)

Inventive facade manipulations are the main architectural story of Building II (the interiors, like those of Building I, are standard issue). The architects used every possible functional excuse--auditorium, elevator towers, differing kinds of rooms, exhaust equipment on the roof--to create succinct patterns for each of the four facades. Differing materials--red and gray bricks, glazed blocks, standing seam metal panels--enliven each facade.

This qualitative imbalance between outside and inside is reversed at the white-on-white new fitness center, to be dedicated Sept. 15. It is the lively interiors that bring distinction to this design, by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson of Philadelphia (1994 Firm of the Year of the American Institute of Architects), working with Burt Hill Kosar Rittelmann Associates.

Outside, the fitness center is a minimalist machine in a mostly macadam field. A very big machine: The center is much larger than even a fully grown university would need. It contains a 50-meter swimming pool, a 7,000-square-foot pool for children, a full-size basketball court, a running oval, a day-care center, racquetball courts, and rooms for aerobics, weight training and machine exercise. And more.

This variety of services reflects another innovative partnership. Here, the school collaborated with the governments of both Prince William County and the city of Manassas. The long-run expectation is that user fees from county citizens (and outsiders, for higher rates) will cover much of the $18 million cost.

Behind the 475-foot-long main facade, lead designer Bernard J. Cywinski seized every opportunity to give the big box an architectural soul. Colors, lighting, shapes, patterns and pathways were combined to provide unpretentious yet strong settings for human activity.

Long bands of translucent clerestory windows, for instance, shape spaces with their subtle luminosity. The row of pool windows, with panes of cobalt blue, is a shimmering ribbon close to the ground. There are immense silvery air ducts, a translucent oval skylight above an oval overlook, and a curvy end wall, made of blue-painted concrete blocks. Most memorably, a towering corridor lined with massive brick columns runs the entire length of the building--a dramatic, affecting space.

Three disparate buildings do not a whole campus make. Nor does the office-park model fit the conventional campus goal of defined, walkable spaces. A master plan with no architectural guidelines eliminates the possibility of a traditional family resemblances between buildings.

Despite these conditions--or perhaps even because of them--George Mason University has made an interesting, if ambivalent, start in Prince William County. At best, its emphasis on selecting strong individual architects could produce a campus of extraordinary buildings--a diverse, unusual family. At worst, the campus could end up being not much more than an above-average office park.

CAPTION: Clockwise from top: Academic Building II at the Prince William County campus of George Mason University; the 50-meter pool at the gigantic Freedom Aquatic & Fitness Center; the fitness center's exterior; and a dance studio inside.