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For May, Less Is More : Architect Takes Aim at 'Monuments'

April 24, 1988|RUTH RYON | Times Staff Writer

TV Producer Aaron Spelling's Holmby Hills mansion, which looks more like a hotel than a home as its three stories and 56,500 square feet take shape, reminds architect Cliff May of the old saying:

When an architect makes a mistake, he plants a tree.

Trouble is, many of the houses being built today leave little room on their grounds for trees, and some homes, like Spelling's, dwarf others on the block.

"Good architecture is something that fits in the neighborhood," May said, "but nowadays, many architects are building monuments to their clients, and the homes look like castles and mausoleums."

Far from Modest Home

May, who will turn 80 in August, is father of the California ranch-style house, which--by its name--connotes casual, rather than elegant, living. Yet, May's own house is far from modest.

Known as Mandalay, it is 10,000 square feet in size. Its living room, which has a cathedral ceiling and a skylight, is 55 feet long, 35 feet wide and 15 feet high.

As part of May's second divorce, which he expects to be settled next month, the house--on about 20 Brentwood acres with 10 acres of rolling lawns--will be sold, he says. "It was appraised at $22.5 million."

Despite its value and size, Mandalay has been, since May built it in 1953, what he calls his "demonstration house," where he has demonstrated the design approach he used for more than 1,000 houses, mostly in California but also in such places as Switzerland and Australia. He also designed a low-cost plan other builders used in the '50s to construct an estimated 18,000 homes.

Wide Open Spaces

May's approach calls for houses to be built out instead of up, and it tries to bring the outdoors in. The 1-story, rambling Mandalay has ceramic-tile and parquet floors, massive carved and sliding-glass doors, beamed ceilings, shuttered or wooden-framed windows, a gigantic kitchen with two dishwashers, many small gardens and private patios.

May loves wide open spaces. No wonder. A descendant of an early California Spanish family, he was raised on a San Diego ranch. His development of the widely popular California ranch-style house, a modern version of the Mexican hacienda or 19th-Century ranch house, was a natural.

Still, he didn't start out as a designer and never became a member of the American Institute of Architects with the designation of AIA. "I'm not a joiner," he said, "but a lot of people like initials after their names. That makes them feel important."

Until recently, he was a licensed building designer. "I was proud that I got where I did and wasn't an architect, but one day a couple of years ago, somebody from the state called me and said, 'We're making you an architect.'

"As part of Gov. (George) Deukmejian's economizing, they did away with the agency over building designers and made the (registered) designers licensed architects."

Made Furniture

May studied business and accounting at San Diego State for a couple of years when the stock market crashed in 1929, and he left school. While still a student, he made furniture, which he sold in a model house.

That led him to home building after leaving school. He built and designed his first house in San Diego when he was 23.

He doesn't make furniture anymore, but he still plays the piano, which he also took up in college when he was a member of a five-man band. He even took along a portable piano once or twice in his private plane.

May became a pilot in 1945, about 10 years after he moved to Los Angeles. He was inspired to take flying lessons by John Clifford Garrett, founder of Garrett AirResearch. May designed two houses for Garrett: in Escondido and, later, in Trousdale Estates in Beverly Hills.

"My plane crashed once into a million pieces, but I walked away from it," May said. That was in the mid-'60s, he figures, "because my son, Mike, was in junior high then."

Horseback Riding

May's three children are grown now, and he has four grandchildren. He also still owns a plane, a Bonanza, but a professional pilot has ferried him around in it for the past 8 years.

When he's not flying, May is apt to be horseback riding. Though his 32-year-old horse died last year, May is a member of Los Rancheros Visitadores in Santa Barbara, and he still joins the group from time to time "just for the fun of it." That is, when he's not working.

Yes, at an age when most people are taking life easy, May is still working.

"We do a lot of gadgets," he said. "We heat floors, and we cool rooms with a tube of cold water running around the ceiling."

'Less Is Best'

He's working on a $2-million expansion of an Atherton house he built in the '50s for under $12,000, and he is helping work out a house plan in Montecito for his old friend, Paul Trousdale, who built 36,000 houses and founded Trousdale Estates. May has envisioned a house for Trousdale that would be 1,000 feet long, with an indoor swimming pool, water slide and island.

"We're working on three or four other projects," he said, "and there's always something coming around the corner."

He is also devising a theory about architectural space, adhering to the philosophy that "less is best. I want to do a 1- to 2-room house with everything in it."

And he has no plans to retire.

"I believe like George Burns and Bob Hope," he said. "You retire, and you're gone the next month."

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