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ARCHITECTURE : REVIEW

Modern style for the masses

Cliff May found success in weaving past and present into his ranch houses, a museum show suggests.

April 01, 2012|CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE | ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

But the real strength of this exhibition is in suggesting a slightly different explanation for May's wild success and wide influence: his ability to take a handful of architectural threads -- from the most romantic historicism to the most forward-looking modernism -- and weave them masterfully together in successive variations of the ranch house template.

May's influences

The exhibition underlines the diversity of the architects who inspired May, who died in 1989, by hanging designs by George Washington Smith, Myron Hunt, Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler and many others around the perimeter of the galleries. (If May's ranch houses were "modern without looking it," Schindler's own house on King's Road, the show suggests, was the opposite: a stealth ranch house prototype cloaked in modernist garb.)

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, April 18, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Cliff May: In the April 1 Arts & Books section, an article about the "Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch, 1920-1960" exhibition at the UC Santa Barbara Art, Design and Architecture Museum said that May was born in 1903. He was born in 1908.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 22, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Cliff May: An April 1 article about the "Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch, 1920-1960" exhibition at the UC Santa Barbara Art, Design and Architecture Museum said that May was born in 1903. He was born in 1908.

Surprisingly absent -- probably because UCSB doesn't own his archive -- is architect William Wurster, who worked mostly in Northern California and produced an especially appealing and plain-spoken modernism.

May's own designs are meanwhile grouped in the center of the galleries, many of them mounted on what the curators call "sheds": small gabled displays where plans, renderings and photographs are laid out on burlap under glass. The show, designed by Rollin Fortier and Amy McFarland, is on the rustic side, and it suffers from a problem typical of architecture exhibitions, which is that you don't get much of a spatial sense of what it's like to walk through, let alone live in, the houses on view.

A room of contemporary photographs by Catherine Opie of May houses is arranged as a kind of antechamber to the larger exhibit, and though the photographs are far from Opie's best work, they help cut through some of the gauze of the watercolors from May's office.

You could also make an argument that the show misses a chance to connect May's work to trends in contemporary residential architecture. There is a group of talented emerging architects -- many in Japan, like Go Hasegawa and the firm Atelier Bow-Wow, but also plenty in this country, including L.A.'s Barbara Bestor -- who are trying to bridge the same gap May did, producing smartly streamlined modern houses that aren't afraid of a pitched roof or an occasional nod to the vernacular.

And yet, to be fair: May was rustic, wasn't he? An old-world amiability and ease were at the core of his appeal. As the show points out, May played many roles in his life, including salesman, developer and daredevil pilot, "but the role he perfected was that of an 'old Californian,' a man of the West, free and easy in his living, relaxed and without social pretension."

Even more important, May was able to translate personal charisma into the architectural variety more successfully than any of his peers. This was his genius: that a Cliff May house was typically as urbane and approachable as the man himself.

--

christopher.hawthorne@latimes.com

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