If a city's civic life is measured by the structures that dot its landscape, especially those designed by world-famous architects, then Washington just moved up a notch.

Across from a 14th Street NW convenience store and just a block from the Upper Cardozo Neighborhood Health Center, workers yesterday erected the city's first building by Richard Meier, famed designer of the new $1 billion J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

It's 13.5 feet long and 5 feet wide, made of black extruded aluminum supports and glass.

And, oh, it's a bus shelter.

The shelter is just outside the entrance to the new Columbia Heights Metro station, one of two stations on the nearly complete inner Green Line scheduled to open Saturday.

The 14th Street shelter is the first of about 100 Meier shelters that Washingtonians will see going up across the city in the next two months, as Adshel--the company that owns and maintains city bus shelters--replaces older ones. Meier originally designed the shelter as part of an Adshel effort to win New York City's bus shelter contract. When Adshel failed to win it, officials said, the company approached the D.C. Department of Public Works and successfully offered the design to Washington instead.

Officials at Metro heard about it, said Adshel Vice President Valerie Paris Dent, and urged that the first one be erected in front of the new Columbia Heights Metro station.

"We're very pleased we can cooperate with" Metro, she said. "This is the first in the U.S. as well as the first in Washington."

Meier designed the roof of the shelter to slant upward in the front, and large glass panels in the back give an open, airy feeling. Lighted panels illuminate a built-in city map. And an eight-inch-wide flip-up bench allows resting but discourages naps.

Dent said the design "doesn't overwhelm the architecture of the city. It is sleek and modern but fits in very well, even next to historic landmarks."

Still, it's a bus shelter, and so innocuous that passersby weren't sure yesterday whether they could tell much of a difference between the Meier bus stop and its predecessor.

"It's slanted," observed Milbert Alston. "This is new."

Lacie Gill, 64, has lived in the neighborhood for 37 years and waited for many a bus at the old stop. She didn't even notice the new shelter until it was pointed out to her.

"Looks the same to me. Like it's always been," Gill said.

Dave McNair, an ironworker putting the finishing touches on the nearby Metro station, said the new bus stop looks like it was designed to match the kiosks in Metrorail stations.

"I thought it was typical, myself," McNair said. "I didn't pay it much mind, to tell you the truth."

Meanwhile, a group of young men who declined to give their names wondered about the future of a bus stop designed by a famed museum architect in the down-and-dirty world of everyday commuters.

"Give it six months," one of them said, "and it's not going to have any glass on it anymore."

CAPTION: Rick Kempff, left, and Nick Friend install the bus shelter near the Columbia Heights Metro station.