Believe it or not, Washington's Commission of Fine Arts, which reviews the design of many of the capital's most important buildings, currently has no members who are architects.

Ironically, the commission owes its existence in part to architects. At the turn of the century, when Washington only marginally resembled the city envisioned by Pierre L'Enfant, the American Institute of Architects led efforts to focus attention on design problems and opportunities in the nation's capital.

Mindful of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the "City Beautiful" movement, members of the AIA helped form the Public Art League in the District to press for legislation establishing "a body of experts to decide upon the merits of works of art and architecture to be commissioned or acquired by the government." The first attempt, in 1897, to pass the league's bill failed, partly because Congress wanted such a group to be only advisory.

Nevertheless, the AIA persevered. In 1900, the city's centennial year, the AIA held its annual convention in Washington and pressed further its ideas concerning the need for design review. The Senate responded by creating the McMillan Commission in 1901, which included Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, New York architect Charles F. McKim, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. from Boston and New York sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens.

The McMillan Commission generated its historic 1901 plan for Washington predicated on preserving and extending L'Enfant's original 1791 principles and intentions. Yet an ongoing, formal design review process was still missing.

This became painfully clear when commission member McKim discovered that the siting of a new government office building violated the L'Enfant and commission plans. He complained to President Theodore Roosevelt, who then ordered the building moved 40 feet, even though foundations already had been started.

Finally, in 1909, responding again to the appeal of a committee of the AIA, Roosevelt issued an executive order appointing an advisory Council of Fine Arts. Composed of 30 members nominated from around the country, the council was to advise cabinet officers on all matters of design.

But Roosevelt's successor, President William Howard Taft, believed that such a council should be established by an act of Congress rather than an executive order. Consequently, he abolished the Fine Arts Council and proposed congressional legislation for a permanent commission. On May 17, 1910, the Commission of Fine Arts legislation was enacted.

By law, seven members of the commission are appointed for four-year terms by the president of the United States. Neither congressional nor District government "advice and consent" are required. Thus the commission, authorized by Congress, serves at the exclusive pleasure of the executive branch, to whose agencies most of its advice is given.

The commission's advisory responsibility is broad. Federal agencies and the District government must consult the commission concerning proposed projects -- buildings, parks, memorials, bridges and other public works -- that affect the civic image of the city. But which projects affect the civic image?

The original law was vague, and subsequent presidents and congresses have had to define more specifically those districts and projects that fall legally within the commission's purview.

The design of all government buildings, both D.C. and federal, are subject to review by the commission.

Federal agencies must seek the commission's advice regarding the design of not only statues, fountains and monuments in public parks, but also coins, medals and insignia.

In 1930, the Shipstead-Luce Act mandated commission review of all projects, both public and private, to be built directly adjacent to, or across the street from, prescribed federal areas -- the "monumental core" encompassing the Mall, Pennsylvania Avenue, the grounds of the White House and Capitol and the Rock Creek and Potomac park systems. Nine years later, the act was amended to include projects abutting Lafayette Park.

In order "to regulate the height, exterior design and construction of private and semipublic buildings in the Georgetown area," Congress passed the Old Georgetown Act in 1950. Projects in historic Georgetown that are visible from public streets and highways must be scrutinized by the commission, which in turn is authorized to appoint its own Georgetown advisory committee.

Congress extended the commission's purview to include review of sites proposed for the National Capital park system located in Maryland and Virginia as well as those in the District.

There also have been recurring discussions and suggestions about expanding the commission's design review authority to buildings fronting on circles, squares and principal avenues established by the L'Enfant plan. The rationale for such proposals is protection of Washington's "civic image," which is obviously not limited to federal properties.

The commission's role is that of a critic. Project architects and sponsors, whether government agencies or private developers, meet with the commissioners initially at the design concept stage. Comments are made -- both favorable and unfavorable -- along with suggestions for changes, not always minor ones. After more design work and sometimes additional meetings, detailed project plans are submitted for final review and, applicants hope, favorable recommendation.

All aspects of design are fair game. Commissioners consider not only overall cityscape and architectural concepts -- site planning, building height, massing -- but also stylistic motifs, facade compositions, roofscapes, ornamental details, colors, materials, and landscaping. No one style is favored, but historically the commission's values have tended to reflect the prevailing values of the architectural establishment.

That raises questions about the absence of architects on the commission. Current members include a landscape architect, two sculptors, two laypersons involved in the arts, a businessman (who is also a state senator) and the chairman, J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery and a distinguished art critic. Their terms expire in 1989.

Notwithstanding the qualifications and accomplishments of the commission, why has the president not chosen an architect to serve? Although the secretary of the commission, Charles Atherton, and most of his staff are architects, some commission members also should be architects.

Indeed, the method for naming commission members probably should be modified. Terms should be staggered so that not all commissioners are appointed by one president. This also would ensure continuity. Perhaps terms should be of different durations. As it stands now, a president newly elected in 1988 can appoint a whole new commission in 1989.

Finally, I wonder if every member should be appointed by the president, without the advice and consent of Congress or anybody else. The city of Washington has both a national and a local constituency. Therefore, Congress and the District government should play some role in commission appointments.

Regardless of its composition, the Commission of Fine Arts has done much for the capital. Elihu Root, the senator from New York who introduced the commission legislation in 1910, summarized cogently the commission's ultimate achievements, past and present, in a letter written to the commission chairman in 1935.

Next: Commission war stories. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.