It's a fact of life that few people ever need to hire an architect. Many people don't even know an architect, much less what architects are really like and how they work.

But lack of knowledge rarely prevents people from forming opinions. Indeed, a public survey probably would reveal a wide range of media-derived, sometimes conflicting impressions about architects, among them that architects are:

Affluent and socially well connected. Prima donnas prone to being arrogant and egocentric. Idiosyncratic, eccentric, offbeat. Impractical, particularly about money and construction. Artistic, yet technically knowledgeable. Periodically unemployed.

If asked to name an architect, most people would immediately cite American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, unquestionably the most famous architect of the 20th century, if not of all time. Wright was the ultimate iconoclastic, free-spirited architect, and it's his persona, as well-known as many of his buildings, that has shaped the public's vision of the master architect.

The universe of architects, unlike the architecture they produce, remains mysterious and inscrutable to most observers. Despite frequent media exposure, even living monuments like octogenarian Philip Johnson or fashion leaders like Michael Graves are hardly household names.

Architects are scarce in literature, television and film. When an architect does appear, his or her life as a professional is almost always incidental, if it's portrayed at all.

And when architects are portrayed as architects, depictions are inevitably superficial and misleading.

Thus, the public has been treated to a marginally credible variety of architectural characters over the years.

The owner of Mr. Ed, the talking horse in the TV show, was an architect, as was Mr. Brady of "The Brady Bunch." Architect Paul Newman designed "The Towering Inferno," complete with a Hugh Hefner-style bedroom suite tucked away next to his office, while architect Charles Bronson, relentlessly fulfilling his "Death Wish," continues wiping out criminals with whom the police can't deal.

From time to time, fans of the television situation comedy "Family Ties" see Meredith Baxter Birney, normally playing mother and housewife, struggling at the kitchen table over the design of a house addition during her occasional moments as an architect. This is a media role model that must make many women architects shudder.

Author Ayn Rand's 1940s novel, "The Fountainhead," remains the most enduring fictional representation of an architect being an architect. But Rand did not invent her indomitable hero Howard Ruark -- the iron-willed, independent, incorruptible architect (allegedly modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright) -- to illuminate the world of architects and architecture.

Instead, Ruark is Rand's instrument for trumpeting her procapitalist, anticollectivist philosophy concerning the might, right and sanctity of the individual, especially strong, creative individuals who stick to their do-or-die principles.

When the movie version of "The Fountainhead" was last shown at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, students laughingly noted the irony of the stylistic battle fought by Gary Cooper playing Ruark.

As champion of the then architecturally avant garde, he steadfastly advocated modernism while condemning the establishment's architectural nostalgia, its attachment to neoclassicism and Beaux Arts eclecticism.

In recent years, the avant garde position was to condemn modernism and futurism while blending in references to historical styles again. If the film were made today, the new Ruark would be attaching ornamental, classically composed facades to the old Ruark's models of Bauhaus-inspired modern office buildings.

Building industry professionals -- developers, contractors, lenders, government regulators, real estate brokers, attorneys -- work directly with architects and are likely to see architects more realistically, although still through their own special-interest filters.

Many view architects as creative technicians who, by some mystical process, eventually produce blueprints needed to obtain building permits and construct a project. The ephemeral art of architecture is subordinated to issues of project cost, safety and utility. In fact, when architects start talking about aesthetics, many of their fellow building industry professionals simply tune out.

Thus, it is often difficult for architects to explain both clearly and convincingly why a particular design evolved, over and above its functional genesis.

It's not easy to communicate, especially to skeptical clients and contractors, the depth of feeling, the amount of psychic and emotional investment, that a design may represent. Giving birth to a design concept is a sacred act to many architects, and they understandably may feel protective and parental toward their creation.

Moreover, designing involves instinct and intuition as much as analysis and calculation.

How do you explain what makes one proportion right and another wrong when there is no absolute right or wrong? Rendering aesthetic aspects of design comprehensible through rational explanation sometimes leads to verbalization by architects that sounds like an alien tongue. Such moments sometimes reinforce perceptions of architects as being precious and poetic, but disconnected from reality.

On the other hand, building industry professionals also know plenty of architects who are quite content just to provide competent services for their clients and the public. Such designers, whatever their talents and aesthetic aspirations, are seen usually as congenial, accommodating and attentive.

Indeed, a few obsequious architects will do almost anything to please their clients in the interest of sustaining harmony and cash flow.

Most professional architects are employed by architectural or building industry firms and, as members of teams, contribute to designing reasonable buildings.

Few will become master builders, new versions of Frank Lloyd Wright or Philip Johnson, and most will have limited conceptual design responsibilities.

They will spend a lot of their day hassling with colleagues in the office, with contractors and clients, with building code and zoning officials, and with persistent sales representatives pushing the latest building products.

Much of their effort will entail putting dimensions on drawings, figuring out construction details and deciding which window to specify.

The meaningful drama of being an architect lies not in the day-to-day work, so often tedious and unexciting.

Instead, it lies in the inner, emotional relation between designer and gestating design and in the concrete realization of exciting, three-dimensional design ideas through construction.

Conveying this drama through literature, film or television is a difficult challenge, and one yet to be met. Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.