What is ''American'' in ''American architecture?'' The schoolbook search for a national identity was never solved in the patterning of a polyester architecture across America.
Like a building without a foundation, or a big city without the connective tissue of a transit system, the study of American architecture's past was fragmented and fractionalized.
Records drifted into oblivion. Books and magazines vanished, and artifacts settled in strange repositories, or scattered. Scholarship was often an iffy adventure.
Now, however, the Center for the Study of American Architecture, initiated by Columbia University's School of Architecture, has secured a home, attracted regional allies, and scheduled an inaugural symposium and exhibition in the spring.
Bearing the title ''American Architecture: Innovation and Tradition,'' the April 21-24 conference at Columbia will ''seek to isolate an American strain in this country's architecture, and in so doing, to establish and examine the cultural and environmental conditions that have determined the course of American building,'' organizers say.
Topics from the skyscraper to slave quarters, individual architectural geniuses from Thomas Jefferson to Louis I. Kahn, and settlements from Shaker communities to planned suburbs in Radburn, N.J., are cited as samples of ''America's way of synthesizing common sense and the powerful and imaginative art of building.''
Until now, ''the nature of this distinctiveness'' concerned scholars less than its European origins. As sponsor David DeLong of Columbia puts it, ''There is a kind of belief in this country that American architecture is second-rate.'' By assembling scholars and practitioners to research US design, the center will substantiate its importance.
Regional centers at the Chicago Art Institute, the University of Texas at Austin, and elsewhere will also offer proof of Columbia's forfeiting ''New York imperialism'' for a cross-country outlook.
Catha Grace Rambusch, administrative director of the new center, traces the new regional and vernacular approach to the branching - the rooting out - of the bicentennial.
The celebration of 1776 rejected a central crystal palace or fairground. It picked no single place as ''patriot city.'' Instead, funding went to towns and county committees. ''We are still bearing the fruits of that concern,'' the director observes.
''People who never looked at their Main Street before opened their eyes,'' she says.
Lee, Mass., the town the director calls her summer home, sits on the periphery of the quiche-and-chic towns that service Tanglewood tourists. It is a working class, workaday place. ''Now,'' the director goes on, ''people are looking at Lee and saying 'Oh! That cornerstone looks interesting! Who made it? Was it Lee marble? Did a local merchant do it?
''That impulse motivates the center,'' she goes on. ''People are beginning to collect information about where they're going to shop and saying, ''What is going to happen to our town?''
Whether they're looking at the architecture, the typology, or making simple encyclopedic lists of all the buildings, they are beginning to supply the center's data base.
''Those depots will allow people of a turn of mind to answer whether there is an American architecture, to analyze what is happening. In my view, that kind of analysis is fallacious unless you have that information.''
Apparently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Institute of Architects agree; both have endorsed the project.
So has much of the scholarly community listed as sponsors or giving papers. There will be talks on ''The Place: Urbanism, Suburbanism, and Civic Design,'' ''The Object: Decorative Arts and Industrial Arts,'' and ''The Building: Vernacular and Monumental.'' Speakers will include John Coolidge on ''The American Character of Place,'' Dolores Hayden on ''Place and the Politics of Space,'' and Tom Hines on ''Mission Bell, Tacos Bell, the Response to Tradition in 20th-Century Los Angeles.''
Other scholars will supply the six regional parts in an exhibition offering a national overview of American architecture. The exhibition that coincides with the colloquium will travel around the country.
John Zukowsky, the Chicago Art Institute architecture curator charged with providing the Midwestern panels of photographs, traces the inspiration of the center to the same pivotal period in recent history as Catha Rambusch - the bicentennial - and to a volume on 200 years of American architectural drawings.
That bicentennial encouraged the study and saving of artifacts, he says. The Cooperative Preservation of Architectural Records at the Library of Congress.emerged as a clearinghouse.
So, in some senses, did Mr. Zukowsky's own work at the Art Institute's Burnham Library, a source parallel to the Avery Library that supplies the scholarly riches for the national center at Columbia.
The Chicago Art Institute has also found seed money for a feasibility study on taping and videotaping living architects to see ''who's doing what where'' and transmit it to the regional centers.
''It's important to share knowledge, rather than hoard information,'' Mr. Zukowsky says. With money short, he and others outside the New York nexus feel that a number of centers, not one, should evolve from the conference. Several of them distrust the Manhattan monomindedness that says that architecture ''dribbled into the hinterlands.''
The six-faceted regional exhibition should assuage some of these fears. Architecture professor Lawrence Speck of the University of Texas, for instance, will single out the romance, the isolation, and the diversity of his state's built environment as collected in photographs in the university's architectural library. The library's resources range from small outposts to the design office of the influential architect, the late O'Neil Ford.
''There's a real dearth of consciousness as to what constitutes an American city versus a European one,'' Mr. Speck says. He looks to the center as starting from scratch - as examining ''day one in America'' - and he would like to see it eschew high-flying world surveys and stick to down-to-earth views of its own backyard. He finds architects more willing to do so than before.
These sentiments are echoed at the center by an administrator who harks again to her own blue-collar town taking pride in its identity.
Ms. Rambusch carries the one concern to the other: ''That's the thing at the center,'' she says, ''to have a place where people can come from everywhere and talk and address the issues of architecture, . . . which is the art which touches all of us.''