Los Angeles; DIGGING IN ITS ARCHITECTURAL ROOTS

Los Angeles is perimeter country - edging, not center; the sprawling architecture of a Raymond Chandler landscape, not the hard-pack core city served by a Serpico.

Its wraparound aesthetic of the highway deserves a separate label, critics have said. It is kulture, not culture: a substream of diners and bungalows, cloverleafs vs. buildings; structures lacking the durability for praise as design.

So what's an avid bunch of preservationists such as the Los Angeles Conservancy doing staking out turf in a center that doesn't hold? How can it have filled a book with ''The Architecture of Los Angeles''? As for its ''downtown walking tours,'' isn't that a contradiction in terms here?

Not so, it appears. Nowadays the radios are playing ''Mood Indigo'' and ''My Buddy'' and a new generation of impassioned urbanites is proving otherwise.

While megaboxes without amenities head high (''Somewhere Over the Rainbow'') on the West Side of the city, the four-year-old conservancy and its constituency are preaching on how to learn to love the old downtown.

A new audience for the city species of building has made claims for the neglected forms of a half century or so ago - from the nostalgic remnants of the Brown Derby to the more resplendant period pieces of the Pan Pacific Auditorium, the Wiltern, or the downtown picture palaces.

Certainly, the sense of art deco as a legitimate design form has helped the appearance of ''My Heart Is in Downtown LA'' slogans in the Los Angeles Conservancy's tiny quarters at 849 South Broadway.

The style has become downright lovable, writes historian John B. Jackson, a humane replacement and addition to the international style, ''novel and ingratiating, easy to understand and adapt,'' an ''attempt to soften and 'humanize' the radical new forms of the modern style.''

The tour is a rich, if unexpected, one then.

''People are still surprised by a Los Angeles walking tour,'' says director Ruth Ann Lehrer. ''We do have a center. It's coming to life.''

After a period of decline the Hispanic downtown that surrounds her offices shows signs of vitality, a vitality that the city's redevelopment agency has encouraged through preservation and adaptive re-uses such as a middle-income, $ 80,000 condominium, she says.

''Dedicated to the recognition, preservation, and revitalization of our urban environment,'' the conservancy, like peer-preservation groups in more conventionally ''historic'' places, nudges the city agency.

Its roster of preservation projects includes extending historic districts (South Street is one example) or bolstering buildings (Bertram Goodhue's stunning Central Public Library) threatened by the encroaching commercial glass slabs, studying environmental-impact reports, and holding meetings.

A show of ''Buildings Reborn in Los Angeles'' helped orient some support toward the city's urban treasures such as the Bradbury Building; so did the city's 200th-anniversary celebration and its publication of ''LA Access,'' a handy guide to the city confirming the Bradbury as ''one of the most significant buildings in Los Angeles' architectural heritage . . . an awesome atrium under glass.''

The latest boost, the conservancy-sponsored history of Los Angeles architecture, charts the origins of the defense of the city's design gems almost 100 years ago and finishes in this decade.

The boom for a revived mission architecture made even the early Angelenos conscious of the raveling of the real thing: the San Fernando Mission Church was ''roofless, weeds grew high in the nave, and mounds of debris blocked doorways, '' Paul Gleye writes in the handsomely illustrated 239-page book (Rosebud Books, Los Angeles, $35). From the Mission Revival came the Association for the Preservation of Missions in 1892.

A generation later, Los Angeles joined the history-seeking of the East Coast to carve cherubs in stone palazzos and ornament beaux-arts versions of Europe's past.

Still, the boisterous entrepreneurs of this period had a freer hand in the West.

The El Capitan Theater and Department Store flourishes a bison head, Texas longhorn steer, playing cards, six shooters, and stone maidens on the outside; and walls covered with murals of the witch scene from Macbeth within.

Egyptian Revival, Moorish, Chinese styles - nothing failed to inspire the architects in their search for exotic extravaganzas for their flamboyant movie-house designs.

Thus, while the downtown core contains one of ''the best collections of beaux-arts commercial buildings,'' in the conservancy view, it also boasts these galas of a more fanciful cast.

In the midst of the vapid extrusions of the 1880s, beneath the plastic signage of the shoddily redone, their design opulence contrasts and endures.

Time and the influx of a theatergoing Latin-American population have also come to the aid of the preservationists.

So has the consciousness-raising and cost-awareness of today's developers.

Behind the sunspray design on the doors of the Oviatt Building, the once-languishing 12-story structure now dazzles a lunchtime crowd. The Lalique glass, the wood floors, and the ornamental '30s trim have returned glossier days to the former clothes store.

A loving owner, Wayne Ratkovitch, paid $400,000 for the structure and reportedly 10 times the price in renovation to make the building communsurate with its florid past - down to the pink-and-maroon trim, the carved oak columns, and the new gold-palm decor.

Similarly, the Spanish fantasy of the 1923 Biltmore Hotel was reawakened by architects Gene Summers and Phyllis Lambert recently; while even a more modest apartment at 716 South Olive boasts a sprightly gray trim and white flag.

Downtown L.A. is no urban paragon, of course. Pershing Square, its major city park, once forested with palms and cooled by fountains, is tattered; parking lots and grim signage stud the city; and the Los Angeles Conservancy's bulletin, despite its urbanity, is studded with tales of potential loss.

Still, the city's sense of its urban self - a self seen by its embodiment in architecture - may be on the upswing.

A new preservationist ethos, abetted by activists, may favor the remains of the urban architecture that displays them.

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