Most first-time visitors to the Canadian Museum of Civilization get their initial view of it from the heights of Parliament Hill, across the river in Ottawa, Canada's capital. On a bright fall day, the main museum building with its rounded copper roofs appears to uncoil like a large elegant snake seeking sun on the lowland riverbanks.

Once they cross the bridge into Hull, however, and find themselves standing next to the museum's rough-hewn stone walls, visitors are more likely to compare the architecture to weatherworn cliffs or mountain outcrops. The architectural forms and materials inevitably encourage metaphors of nature--whether animal or mineral--to roll off the tongue.

Clearly, the two buildings that make up the museum complex are not your ordinary architectural containers--neither old-fashioned museums-as-Roman-temples nor customary modernist abstractions. Rather, they comprise an organic masterwork by Douglas Cardinal, the architect initially selected to design the National Museum of the American Indian on the Washington Mall, for which ground was broken in a solemn ceremony late last month.

A visit to Cardinal's Canadian museum--which contains authoritative displays of Canadian history, Native American culture and a children's museum--prepares you for the kinds of architectural experiences you might expect when the Mall building opens in 2002. The architecture is strong, beautiful and unique. It leaves a lasting impression. There are meaningful, moving spaces both inside and outside. A leisurely trip around and through the buildings on the Ottawa River inspires you to think ahead eagerly to the museum on the Mall.

Yet your enthusiasm is dampened, unhappily but unavoidably, by all of that messy business back in Washington between the architect and the Smithsonian Institution. Cardinal's vision obviously is the inspiration for the unusual building that will be built on the Mall. The stone sheathing, the long undulating walls, the spectacular overhangs and much more--all that is potentially best about the architecture--are part of his original design.

But Cardinal no longer is the architect of the Washington museum. Technically a subcontractor to a Philadelphia architecture firm, he was dismissed along with that firm last year in a legal dispute. Attempts have been made to patch up relations between the Smithsonian Institution and the renowned Canadian architect, but to little avail.

The results so far have been at once tragic and farcical. A design based on Cardinal's original was revised by a committee of architects including outside consultants and Smithsonian employees. This awkward design was brusquely turned down by the Commission of Fine Arts last spring. Then, with Cardinal's indirect help--he supplied authoritative drawings and advice to an architect who then talked with the Smithsonian team--a second revision received commission approval in June.

Since then, the Smithsonian has continued without Cardinal's input to develop the design in Cardinalesque fashion. The design committee proceeds to make decisions about window treatments, stone coursing, interior spaces, finishes, lighting, signage and other elements crucial to the final look and feel of the building. "I wonder what Doug would do here?" is a question that often must come up--though perhaps not in so many words.

This is an uncertainty that mercifully does not occur at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. There are signs here and there of "value engineering"--design changes made for cost reasons during the construction process. Some of the alterations were quite severe. The height of the museum building was cut by 10 feet, for instance, effectively slicing off the view of the Parliament Hill towers from glass-enclosed third-floor balconies.

But such changes were made with the design architect's collaboration--or at least his knowledge--and the museum remained a Cardinal building through and through. There are some buildings--most buildings, perhaps--where the identity of the designer is not terribly important. There are others--and Cardinal's Canadian and Washington museums definitely are among them--where the opposite is true.

It is not a question of egomania (though there may be a bit of that) or self-glorification (that, too). Rather, the issues are creativity and responsibility: The design was conceived by a highly original, individual mind, and only that mind can properly comprehend the complex interrelationships of the whole and its parts. To build a great building requires hundreds of talented people, of course, but when the building is a work of art on the scale of this Canadian museum, the creating individual must supply the overriding guidance.

Organic architecture is a loose but useful term with several related meanings. It can refer to buildings that seem to grow out of a particular natural site; to designs influenced by nature's complex processes and geometries, and to associative forms that strongly evoke those of the natural world.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization is a bit of all three, but not in any shallow, sentimental way, for it also is a very impressive, obviously man-made and clearly contemporary imposition upon the land. Indeed, it is Cardinal's rare ability to hold contrasting qualities in equilibrium--past and future, man-made and natural worlds, modern and organic architecture, European and Native American traditions--that give his architecture its spark, its vivid idiosyncrasy.

There was a functional logic behind the decision to divide the huge museum into two distinct buildings--one is for administration and storage, the other for exhibitions. In practical terms--weatherproofing, interior climate control, circulation, lighting and so on--the buildings work well. The point is worth making only because Washington opponents have suggested that Cardinal is not capable of doing the practical things right.

It is aesthetics, however, that strike you when you visit the site. The two massive stone buildings--one an elegant series of curving, clifflike balconies, the other a copper-domed apparition with multiple personalities--are yin and yang. They complement each other, and together shape a welcoming public plaza and frame a magnificent view of Canada's most important official buildings up on Parliament Hill.

Shaped entirely by architecture, the place nonetheless adventurously conveys a strong spirit of nature. The vast exhibition building, off to your right as you enter the plaza, exerts an irresistible pull. Its long colonnade calls traditional museum buildings to mind, but the curiously tapered columns are also like smooth stalactites. Behind the columns is an enormous wall of glass through which you catch glimpses of fabulous, tall Northwest Indian sculptures.

The entrance is astonishingly animal-like, machinelike and cavelike--you go through a gaping mouth under a cyborg eye--and yet it is not corny. Inside, you are attracted to the Grand Hall, the stupendous ovoid room behind that 70-foot-high glass wall. Your museum tour appropriately begins and ends in this great chamber. Along the way there has been much to think about--excellent detailing, flaws here and there, informative exhibitions--but the Grand Hall, uniting inside with outside, is the stunning architectural centerpiece.

A visit to the Canadian Museum of Civilization, in other words, magnifies your appreciation of the Smithsonian's decision to hire Douglas Cardinal to design a museum for the last buildable site on the Mall. And yet again does it force you to question the institution's unfortunate decision not to stick by its insightful first choice.