The British, of all people, have come up with an idea for California living. Some chaps from the tight little island are selling our folks stacked up on the Western frontier a few old English recipes for dealing with cramped space. In fact, Barrett, one of Great Britain's biggest construction firms, is now building ''mini-condos'' in Fremont, with 500 units to follow near San Jose.
A mini-condo, for those of you with a very small ruler handy, is a 440 -square-foot studio apartment, going for $52,000. If you're one of those Westerners who really has to stretch out, Barrett offers a one-bedroom unit for that two Morris Minors.
The English builders are watching carefully to see how tightly Californians can learn to roll their umbrellas. If the natives truly take to their tiny quarters, Barrett is perfectly willing to make them tinier. A 330-square-foot mini-condo is on the drawing board. In England Barrett has built units as small as 280 square feet, or about the size of a one-car garage.
This is about the space America's tonier designers now allow for one of those bathrooms, known as ''leisure centers,'' that include whirlpool, steam bath, and Japanese hot tub, plus one wall for TV and stereo, plus another for your refrigerator and Roman snack bar.
Still, all bragging aside, we do tend to think smaller these days when it comes to our habitat. The National Association of Home Builders has predicted that living space in the average American home will decline from 1,700 to 1,200 square feet. Architects talk a lot about those touches that ''imply'' space and ''relate'' indoors to outdoors. The ''multi-family'' house, with communal kitchen and dining room, is spoken of as the dwelling of the future. The word ''backyard'' threatens to become obsolete. An atrium, or even a flat-roof garage , seems to be about all the access to nature that can be spared, beyond ''relating'' and ''implying.''
The Barrett people, when they really start squeezing floor space, talk of scaling down the furniture to match - a threat to terrify all basketball players. But in addition to the physical shrinking, a kind of mental deflation must occur if Americans are to find small is beautiful around the old doll house. Space, and lots of it, has been a national value.
In writing about the American Dream of the suburb, the brilliant cultural historian Lewis Mumford concluded: ''Whatever else the suburb has stood for, it has demanded an enlargement of the areas of open green and garden.''
Yet the suburb can also be defined as an act of fantasy, arranged to scale. The stately mansion - Tudor, with touches of Gothic castle - gets reduced to fit on a quarter of an acre. This we learned from earlier English miniaturists. Meanwhile, the forest park or formal garden turns into a ''yard,'' with foundation shrubs and a flower bed.
The inhabitants generally have commuted to the nearby city, and every night, as they dodged the tricycle in the driveway, they could say, like a Shakespearean character in the forest of Arden, ''How green it is! How sweet the air!''
But now, we are being told, the suburb has become as unaffordable an indulgence of space as the stately mansion and the forest park. So here we are, invited to take still another sip from Alice's ''Shrink me'' bottle. The token country of the suburb promises to become even more token. ''Saw-toothed'' is one of the grim phrases architects are using to describe lots of the future on which those ''multi-family'' dwellings will be built.
Oil shortage, yes. Indeed we have been trained to take for granted the shortage of any natural resource, including water. But space? It's almost un-American to think we can't afford that.
Yet the Japanese have taught us to fit into their cars. Maybe they can teach us to fit into their houses and gardens too - those models of civilization in miniature.
By definition, scale is relative - an adjustment that occurs in the head rather than the rest of the body. Anybody can live in a 10-room house, one keeps telling oneself. It takes an artist to live in a mini-condo.
Nevertheless, until we take a few more lessons at getting in and out of a Murphy bed, we're drawing the line at the one-car garage.