Tag Archives: Cliff May

Living Beside the Pool

 Taking the Plunge

It’s a compelling dream to live poolside – especially during the hot, waning days of summer. So let’s dive in! Think of the Alhambra in Spain with its

shallow pools and long water courses — though maybe no diving there (photo courtesy Viva-Spain). Here are some examples of more recent houses — if not palaces — with seamless indoor-outdoor poolscapes.

It was natural for the swimming pool to become an emblem of the suburban dream in sunny Southern California, with its culture of experimentation and cinematic glamor, but architects took it a step farther in the 1950s and 1960s, when they incorporated it into the house and treated it as a room in its own right (naturally the air could get a little thick). Los Angeles-based ranch house popularizer Cliff May, for example, made the pool part of the living

room in some houses, like this one in Rolling Hills from 1963. (That planter by the pool was important — you wouldn’t want your LazyBoy to roll into the drink during cocktails by the fire.) In a house May designed for Tucson the

pool is shaded by an extended gable made of ocotillo branches and has a stone table/island at the center — it’s a marvelous shimmering and shady mirage of a desert isle made real (both photos by Rochelle Kramer, courtesy RanchoStyle).

Los Angeles architect John Lautner turned the pool into abstract architectural sculpture, especially in his great Sheats-Goldstein house on a steep hillside, of 1963, where the pool resembles a solid block of glass inserted flush with the

patio, which is itself an extension of the living room under its concrete roof-riff on the triangle (photo by ARTJOCKS courtesy James Goldstein). This remarkable design is all about contrasting solids and voids, enclosure and exposure, and geometric shape expanding into space toward Downtown LA.

(photo courtesy Arcspace). Originally only a curtain of air separated inside from outside, but this was later replaced with glass. The pool also functions as a sort of aquarium for swimmers because windows look into it from the master suite on the lower level.

Today, architects around the world have put pools everywhere, even on the

roof, as this famous house in Paris by the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) of 1991 shows (photo courtesy OMA). A recent design by the inventive

Singapore firm of Guz Architects keeps the pool on the ground but lifts the house over it in a dramatic acrobatic gesture. The structure floats while the pool supports — a wonderful reversal of roles.

Italian architect Lorenzo Spano, who is part of our Exclusive Studio, has

developed this idea in his Plan 473-2, shown here, where the bedroom floor

is above the pool. The living-dining-kitchen is at pool level. Part of the hallway

floor is glass, so you can see through to the swimmers below. Perhaps Lorenzo was thinking of the Blue Grotto on Capri! Swimming pools just seem to encourage “freestyle” home design.

Meet the New Ranch House — and its DNA

A Plan for All Reasons

I’m delighted to welcome designer Steven Murphy to our Exclusive Studio. Steven’s work is inspired by some of Southern California’s most famous modern architects, including A. Quincy Jones and Cliff May. His Solatrium Garden

House Plan 544-1 is a contemporary steel-framed ranch house that celebrates indoor-outdoor living. The view above shows how the main house and adjacent guestroom/garage, open to the private pool terrace. The uncluttered shallow

gable is a signature of mid-century modern design and became increasingly abstracted in the work of May, Jones and other architects of the era. For example, here’s an image of Cliff May’s own house in Brentwood from 1953

the fourth house for his family), which was recently restored and updated with finesse by Marmol Radziner Architects. The surprise is the large skylight that

runs along part of the roof ridge to bring light deep into the interior (these two photographs by Joe Fletcher, courtesy Marmol Radziner). In Murphy’s plan the

skylight is narrower but runs almost the length of the roof to brighten every major room. The Murphy design also recalls the dramatic gable-fronted tract houses that A. Quincy Jones and his design partner Frederick Emmons

designed for developer Joseph Eichler in the Balboa Highlands section of Granada Hills, from around 1964, as shown here, with openings in parts of the gable to bring in light and air (photograph courtesy LA Curbed). 

Steven Murphy’s floor plan is essentially an H under a wide roof: you enter at the

crossbar; ahead is a small outdoor reflecting pool. The house is carefully zoned: public areas to the left in great room and kitchen facing the pool terrace; private

areas to the right in bedrooms and study. Window walls and sliding doors open each end to private patios. Thanks to Steven Murphy, our collection of Mid-Century Modern, Courtyard-Oriented, and Cliff May-and-Eichler-Inspired ranch houses plans is expanding.

Speaking of A. Quincy Jones: one of his most sumptuous estates, Sunnylands, built for publishing magnate Walter Annenberg and his wife Leonore in Palm

Springs in the mid 1960s, has just opened for public tours after an extensive restoration. Appearing to float beside its reflecting lake, it resembles a mirage of modernism (the hallucinatory pink of roof and foundation was meant to capture the color of a desert sunset, as requested by Mrs. Annenberg). It was here that the Annenbergs entertained presidents and British royals, not to mention Hollywood royalty. The Annenberg Foundation has also added the extremely elegant and contexturally deft Sunnylands Center (for approved retreats) by architect Frederick Fisher and Partners.


Ranch House Roofs and other Restoratives

Shake, Rattle, & Research

At the UCSB exhibition on ranch houses  last week I met the owner of a 1960s Cliff May-designed house who impressed me with the care he has taken in replacing the original shake roof on his 60+ year old home. Restoration projects can be problematic. His modern lightweight cement tile solution,

shown here, is successful because it remains true to the roof’s original architectural character while accommodating today’s fire codes. (Even if new wood shakes could be made non-combustible they would be prohibitively expensive.) I think Greg’s experience is useful for anyone thinking about roof replacement.

He used a Boral roofing product called Cedarlite 600 — which is designed to mimic heavy wood shakes — in a color called Silverwood (originally from Monier Lifetile). The 600 refers to weight: a 100 foot-square of Cedarlite 600 tiles weighs 600 pounds and there are 120 pieces to a square. According to Greg: “It’s a lower-density concrete tile with the primary disadvantage that it’s not as strong and walkable as the heavier concrete products.” Using heavier tiles might have meant beefing up structural support. Here are some Cedarlite examples.

Greg likes the texture and  says “It looks reasonably like shake but all the tiles are the same size — although there is variation in the molds and colors of the tiles. They can be slightly staggered but that makes it really easy for the corners to be broken off. Looking at the roof at a certain angle you can see diagonal patterns going up the roof. Most people don’t notice that but once you’re familiar with it that becomes the signature in verifying that Cedarlite 600 or it’s slightly denser cousin Madera 700 is what you’re actually looking at. I felt it was the best shake alternative available.”

Greg was worried about walking on the roof — for maintenance , clearing leaves and such. I spoke with Boral representative Altie Winters about this and she said that if you need to walk on a Cedarlite roof you should wear sticky shoes like sneakers and step where the tiles overlap and avoid the center of the tile itself. Greg used a polyurethane expanding adhesive  in lieu of nails. “The idea,” says Greg, “is that it provides a cushion in the air gap under the tiles which enhances the support when walking on it. It does seem to help quite a bit but you still need to be as careful as possible. At least when the tiles do crack they tend not to move since the adhesive is applied to much of the bottom. Supposedly this material also provides an R-4 insulation value as well. The polyset product was originally designed as a hurricane solution to eliminate the pitfalls of nails coming loose. In the West they market it as a walkability solution. So knock on wood that it will stand the test of time. We’ll see.”

SIDE NOTE: Boral recently introduced an intriguing product called the Boral Pure Smog-Eating Tile. According to Boral, the concrete roof tile’s coating contains a photocatalyst activated by daylight, which helps convert harmful nitrogen oxides into calcium nitrates. A 2,000 square foot roof of these tiles can oxidize the same amount of nitrogen oxide that a car produces from being driven up to 10,800 miles. So far the tiles only come in Mediterranean profiles that 

resemble terra cotta, as shown above.  Maybe they will produce a smog-eating shake look-alike too, some day.

Shakes weren’t the only roofing material in Cliff May’s repertoire; he also used terra-cotta  — on some of his larger custom houses he aimed for a rough hand-crafted look — and occasionally even standing seam metal. Perhaps his

most exotic choice was ocatillo branches, as shown above, to create a shade canopy over the pool at a marvelous oasis-like house in the desert near Tucson, Arizona. According to the owner the branches need to be replaced about every ten years.

The wide glassed-in or open gable, sometimes with a ridge skylight running

down the middle — as shown here at the splendidly expansive house that’s part of Bronzewing Farm, two hours north of Sydney, Australia — became a signature feature of Cliff May’s work. Incidentally, this roof retrofit used a composite tile (not concrete) and works very well.  (Photograph by Joe Fletcher for my ranch house book — shameless self-promotion department!) Such features have

inspired contemporary designers like Dan Tyree in Plan 64- 172. As Greg Friedman might say: such roofs are worth preserving with a little research and a light step.

Major Ranch House Exhibition at UCSB

From Corral to Cul de Sac in the Southern California Home

I just saw “Carefree California: Cliff May and the Romance of the Ranch House” in the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara, curated by Jocelyn Gibbs and Nicholas Olsberg. It’s the first scholarly  exhibition on the history of the suburban ranch house at UCSB since the late architectural historian David Gebhard founded the museum’s design archive in the 1970s and collected the Cliff May papers along with those of many other influential Southern California architects and designers (catalog to be published in April). The fence on the intro wall aptly expresses both the ranch house idea

and the intent of the show: to corral the many facets of ranch house history into a coherent narrative while showing off holdings from the museum’s extensive architectural drawings collections. It’s mostly about ranch house designer, developer, and popularizer Cliff May, who began his career in San Diego in the early 1930s with courtyard designs like this one, which cloaked functional planning and space for the automobile in the romance of history.

They were inspired by early California ranchos with their covered “corredors” or porches. In 1934 he moved to Los Angeles and soon began developing Riviera Ranch, an equestrian-oriented subdivision off Sunset Boulevard near Brentwood. With larger lots his plans could “sprawl” across the site.

This house — for his own family — became his best sales tool and a laboratory for trying out new ideas like residential incinerators and walk-in refrigerators. In the 1950s he and his architect partner Chris Choate developed their “low cost ranch house” concept using standardized, pre-cut elements.

(Image courtesy AD&A Museum.) Window walls and shallow gable roofs were signature features, as shown in the brochure plan and the supergraphic of another May design that dominates a section of the exhibit (below).

May’s designs resemble Eichler tract house plans of the same era — the ranch house concept was everywhere at that time and very malleable. The tract ranch house became popular for developers, which is when the word sprawl took on

a less positive meaning; this is an aerial view of Lakewood Rancho Estates, in Long Beach, California (image courtesy AD&A Museum). Meanwhile May was still designing larger and more lavish custom homes for people like the inventor of

the Lear jet and the composer of the theme song for the TV show Bonanza. The typical pool and patio example above — one of many in the exhibit — became synonymous with California living (image courtesy AD&A Museum).

By the early 1960s Cliff May ranch houses had spread across the country as this wonderful pin map — which I remember seeing in Cliff May’s last office — demonstrates. Some of the pins represent subdivisions of more than 25 houses — his designs are in almost every state as well as as Canada and Mexico.

The show includes ranch house designs by other Southern California architects, from John Byers to Rudolph Schindler, proving that Cliff’s wasn’t the only game in town. As Jocelyn Gibbs, who is the curator of the museum’s Architectural Drawings Collection, told me: the intent was “to suggest that the ranch house and modernist ideas are not incompatible.” Indeed, the ranch house idea was stylistically very loose — simply a one story house with a modern open plan and strong outdoor connections. It had little theoretical baggage.

The need to exhibit only work from the museum’s collections is understandable but I wish there had been a way to include the wider architectural context, from William Wurster’s Butler house at Santa Cruz, California of 1935

(image courtesy Modern in Melbourne), to John Yeon’s Watzek house in

Portland, Oregon, of 1937 (photo courtesy Inside Oregon), to Frank Lloyd

Wright’s Herbert Jacobs Usonian House in Madison, Wisconsin of 1936 (image courtesy GreatBuildings.com) to Walter Gropius’s Arnold Wolfers house in

Brooklin, Maine of 1947 (image courtesy The Downeast Dilletante). Most architects took the ranch house in a more strictly modern direction and didn’t acknowledge Cliff May’s contribution. Nor did most of the design critics of the day. But though Cliff May was left out of architectural debates at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere, it’s clear, as this exhibition vividly demonstrates, that Southern California had a richly experimental residential design tradition and that Cliff had the last laugh. The show remains on view through June 17, 2012; museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 5; free.


Small Home Survey Results

Less Is Not Little

Last week I was on a panel about small home design at the Builder Show in Orlando organized by Gale Steves, author of Right-Sizing Your Home and former editor-in-chief of Home magazine. I talked about how our understanding of what is small — and what a small house should contain — has changed, from Gothic Revival cottages of the 19th century — like the

one in Eldon, Iowa (photo courtesy State Historical Society of Iowa) made famous by the painter Grant Wood — when clients had pitchforks and a small

house meant two or maybe three bed chambers and no bathroom in well under 1,000 square feet (painting image courtesy Art Institute of Chicago) to Craftsman style bungalows of the early 1900s, when middle class commuter suburbs burgeoned and pitchforks gave way to briefcases, and one bathroom per house became the general rule. Larger small houses of the 1920s might have had three or four bedrooms but only one bathroom and perhaps a powder room in roughly 1,600 sq. ft. A profusion of plan books like

this one by Los Angeles architect Paul Williams targeting the small home appeared right after World War II. In the early 1950s popular designer/developer Cliff May compressed the sprawling ranch house concept into his Low-Cost Ranch House idea, which was typically 3 bedrooms and 2

bathrooms in 1,675 sq. ft. See how the carport storage wall and the planter define the entry, and how living room and breakfast area open to the courtyard. The galley kitchen is still somewhat removed from the main living space but opens easily to the breakfast area. The master bath is minimal, with just one vanity. The design was simple, contemporary, and incorporated outdoor space to create a feeling of spaciousness. These and similar modern ranch house plans took off, helping to shape post war suburban America. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, rising land costs and higher expectations – i.e. more bathrooms, double vanities, three car garages — led to smaller lot sizes and the need to maximize space by building two story plans packed with amenities. A burgeoning interest in luxury amenities, fueled by expanding credit, led to the over-built McMansion phenomenon we all know. Lots shrank and houses grew. According to census data the average American home grew from 1,660 sq. ft. in 1973 to 2,392 sq. ft. in 2010.

We surveyed a targeted group of our customers earlier this year and asked what they considered small. More than 1,000 prospective plan purchasers responded. Seventy percent of them defined small as 2,000 sq. ft. or less.

They want their largest spaces to be the Great Room, Kitchen, and Master Bedroom. The Dining Room is essentially extinct as a separate room. Most respondents feel they can minimize space in Other Bedrooms and Baths.

Other spaces that are important to them are Useable Rear Porches or Decks, Laundry/Mudrooms, Open Floor Plans, and Energy Efficiency. Surprisingly, nearly half are interested in One-Story Plans.

So, have we come very far from the early 1950s, when industrial designers Charles and Ray Eames first put into practice their famous phrase “to make the best for the most for the least” ? Yes, I think so. Because we are re-appreciating  and re-learning that concept. Today’s small house has improved. It’s a little larger but also more flexible, energy-efficient, and comfortable, like Plan 537-3

by Concept Home, with 3 bedrooms and 2 baths in 1,636 sq. ft. But now the pitchfork and the briefcase are accompanied by an i-Pad!

One last note: real estate columnist Katherine Salant reported on the panel  in The Washington Post. I hope you can check it out.