To Americans, housing is not a home: For some reason the prospect of being stacked, cubed, filed in brick boxes, quartered in double-loaded corridors, or wall to wall with the next-door neighbor departs from the myths of shelter.
Even in the midst of today's housing crisis, Herbert Hoover's declaration that '' 'Home Sweet Home,' 'My Old Kentucky Home,' and the 'Little Gray House in the West' were not written about tenements and apartments'' still holds.
Despite the cries from the homeless and roofless, and the concern of middle-class renters and buyers, multifamily dwellings have passed from vogue. Designs for mass housing are as absent from the architect's portfolio as from the country's list of political or social priorities.
Nonetheless, there was life at the ''nadir'' last week. Some speakers at a housing conference here noted that ''dry spell'' or not, there were ''stirrings'' that, ''after 10 years of relative inactivity, the seam has started to open.''
One hopes that ''Housing: Renewing the Promise,'' a conference paralleling the exhibition ''At Home in the City,'' was symptomatic, or at least helpful in rousing advocates and architects.
The exhibition, based on six years' research by architects and curators Roy Strickland and Hames Sanders, runs through July 23 at the sponsoring institutions, the City University of New York (CUNY), Graduate Center Mall, 33 West 42d Street, and the Municipal Art Society's Urban Center, 457 Madison Avenue.
Above all, the affection of its curators for their subject was rare and striking.
''For me, housing was what made me an architect,'' Mr. Strickland observed. ''I wasn't looking at Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water, I was looking at housing.''
In their speeches and in the photos and placards rambling over the walls of the two institutions, they suggested the range, the design vitality, the inventiveness - and also the better-known brutality and banality - of the way we live in multiples. From clusters designed by Clarence Stein at Sunnyside 60 years ago to the crated apparition of 15,382 souls pigeonholed at the Bronx's Co-op City, ''At Home in the City'' reflects the diversity of life in the urban world.
Architects Strickland and Sanders underscore the likenesses of ''the residential tradition of New York.'' They spoke of the good features in row houses, tenements, and apartment houses from 1810 to 1980, singling out the ''overture'' to the street through such elements as stoops, or the well-marked entry that says ''home is here.''
The past and sometimes the present left a legacy: a variegated skyline, buildings that admitted light and air, and innovative design adjustments. Inside (the duplex) and out (the landscaped courtyard), the apartment house had variety beyond the single suburban house on its single lot.
''Building the Traditions,'' Part 1, at CUNY, spells out that fascinating bookish history from the row house to the tenement; the apartment house to the first Public Works Administration project in 1936. The sterile superblock of the postwar period labeled, fittingly enough, ''Reduction and Repetition,'' closed the section.
''Toward an Inclusive Approach to Housing'' at the Urban Center elaborates the more contemporary labors of firms such as Davis Brody Associates designing first at Riverbend and then at Lambert, or many architects providing Roosevelt Island's mixed-income design.
A ''Where-have-all-the-flowers-gone'' spirit characterized both the housing shown and the panelists conferring, however, certified by the recent American Institute of Architects statement that ''federal housing programs have already absorbed the largest reduction of any domestic program,'' from $27 billion, appropriated in 1980, to $8.6 billion in 1983.
It is ''the lowest amount since the 1973 housing moratorium,'' with President Reagan's 1984 proposal ready to ''decrease the already low amount by 94 percent, '' according to the AIA.
Thus, although the hopes for rehab money, a rise in housing starts, and a housing bill now working its way through Congress were recorded, ''the promise'' in the title looked backward. A speech by Samuel R. Pierce, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, cited the policy of housing help through deflation and building through a public-private ''joint venture.'' It was greeted with discontented mutterings.
''How does one give each person in a house a sense of a place in a city of millions?'' The question posed by one panelist had no real reply.
''The mission they had (in the 1960s) was quality, and to get quality, they had to get architects,'' architect Lou Davis recalled.
The present and future limned by the speakers largely ignored how to secure formal and functional human needs. Some speakers did record life style changes that could presage changes in design.
There are more roommates sharing homes, intergenerational houses, women pooling child-care needs. Mixed designs will serve them, speakers suggested. The notion of guest rooms came from a public-sector speaker and, from a private one, the idea of a laundry room on each floor.
''For 40 years we built housing for a way of life that was to disappear,'' said Roger Starr, a writer and housing specialist, recalling two-tub kitchens for hand wash, and tables at the proper height for rolling pins. Is that to happen again?
For the future, Starr posited three-family homes with owner-occupancy; another panelist suggested four-family ones.
But most had money on their minds.
Developer Frederick Rose, a self-described ''hard hat,'' set the price for a new two-bedroom apartment in New York at $2,000 a month; the consensus set the average urbanite's budget at $500. Conferees fretted at the $1,500 discrepancy, which has less to do with design issues than the need for federal subsidy; the planners are preoccupied with government assistance and problems with unions, site costs, maintenance, and like issues.
The two speakers who are actually producing housing climbed no architectural Everests, either.
Edward Logue, former Urban Development Commission head now at work in the South Bronx, is producing single-family raised ranches with picket fences for the ''people who left the South Bronx to buy ranches.'' He spoke of innovation in terms of saving costs on sewer hookups and prefabrication. I. D. Robbins, a columnist and builder who has joined a public-private group to produce Brooklyn row housing, spoke of home ownership (''in the gut of every family'') as the means to salvation.
The home-sweet-home approach concluding the conference seemed a sad finale to dreams of diversity of earlier times.
''Full circle,'' Kent Barwick of the Municipal Art Society said sadly in concluding the conference. If it was a closed loop in terms of admitting new ideas on ways of designing or solving the housing shortage, it was at least an uncommon chance to see the subject broached, and to survey dreams past, if not present.