This weekend marks the close of the week-long 41st National Preservation Conference sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and held here this year. The conference theme was "Landmarks of Democracy," seemingly befitting the nation's capital.

But the conference was not just about respecting Washington's or any other city's symbolic, monumental landmarks. Nor was it merely an occasion to preach righteously to already sympathetic listeners about the virtues of historic preservation or to compare tactics for "circling the wagons" around every threatened building more than 20 years old.

The conference agenda had much more to do with the nitty gritty of historic preservation, with issues and methods related to preserving and vitalizing neighborhoods and districts and downtowns, as well as historic structures.

Preservation has become future- as well as past-oriented, pragmatic, professionalized and diverse in its concerns. Consider some of the conference sessions and workshops.

Real estate development topics included "Rehab for Profit: New Opportunities in Real Estate," "The New Tax Incentives for Producing Low-Income Housing in Historic Structures," and "Structuring Nonprofit Goals into Historic Syndication."

Under the minorities-in-preservation heading were "Race, Politics and Preservation," "Equalizing Opportunities for Preservation Participation," and "Women's Places."

While some workshops -- "Coping With Development Juggernauts" or "Local Threats to Nationally Significant Properties" -- seemed defensive, most focused on principles, techniques and case histories illuminating how to identify, finance, manage, use and expand historic resources, in addition to keeping them from being torn down.

This is a healthy trend away from a purely reactive posture toward a more proactive one. It reflects the inclusive nature of the preservationist agenda in the 1980s, in particular recognizing that preservation and growth are not incompatible.

It also recognizes that attitudes routinely taken for granted in recent years are evolving as people examine rigorously and realistically some of the theories and practical results engendered by the historic preservation movement.

One area of attitude evolution was discussed in a workshop -- "Design in America: Issues and Opportunities" -- in which I participated. The subject was "contextualism," a pervasive and compelling design rationale for architects, planners, preservationists and concerned citizens.

Exactly what does contextualism mean? The dictionary defines "context" as "the whole situation, background or environment relevant to a particular event, personality or creation;" "contextual" simply means "depending on, or belonging to, the context."

Thus, design contextualism is about projects relating to the surrounding physical "environment" and to the "situation" or circumstances producing them. But the nature of the relationship, and how it is perceived, can vary tremendously.

Today, contextual design almost always refers to new architecture that appears to be visually harmonious and compatible with abutting or nearby old architecture.

Moreover, designers and preservationists commonly assume that harmony can be achieved only through replication and simulation when, in fact, contrast and new formal patterns may be desirable and more appropriate.

We see much new work that is stylistically imitative of its neighbors, even when neighboring architecture is mediocre. The underlying premise seems to be that if it's older, it must be better and therefore worth repeating.

More and more buildings gratuitously borrow and apply contextually meaningless historical motifs to otherwise modern structures.

While devaluing the antique, this kind of contextual mimicry has become a formula for design, relieving architects of the obligation and opportunity to engage in truly contextual and inventive design.

Authentic contextualism preserves historic landmarks and the integrity of genuinely historic places, but it simultaneously accepts the natural evolution of cities, architectural theories and styles, technology and human behavior.

Good contextual design comprehends the special nature of a project's site -- its "genius loci" -- as well as the nature of the project itself, whom is it for, how is it to be built, what will it do? Thoughtful analysis may suggest imitative extensions of some or all the existing context, but it also may lead in new directions for which no precedent exists next door.

The absence of compelling historical context plagues suburban development, where frequently the only context is nature.

This suggests the need to impose rules and patterns establishing a context to which others might subsequently relate. Unfortunately, such rules and patterns are rarely invented.

Contextualism allows the setting of new standards, the making of new forms or the reshaping of old ones.

New architecture can and should add something, whether subtle or grand, to cultural history and the historic fabric. It should give as well as take, be a template, not just a copy.

Why believe that the only safe thing, in the interest of historic preservation, is to revive or rearrange history? Is it enough just to mix and match materials, cornices, windows and decoration? Xeroxing context is no less sinful than ignoring it.

Surely, the idea embodied in "Landmarks of Democracy" extends to buildings and places that don't exist yet, whose ultimate shape, character and historical value should not be proscribed by another misunderstood "ism." Contextualism preserves the future as well as the past. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.