Miami Beach History
Morris Lapidus Biography
a prophet is without honor in his own country, Morris Lapidus was
a prophet who lived to see his dream fulfilled on a limited basis.
His self-described architecture of the American Dream, flamboyant
in the extreme and expressive of the heights of 50s and 60s exuberance,
was reviled in its day. Critics called his Miami
Beach hotels boarding house baroque, the epitome of the apogee,
emblems of tail-fin chic, and the nation's grossest national product.
The New York Times called it superschlock. Pornography of architecture,
sniffed Art in America. The Miami Herald joked that it was probably
not too disturbing to people who have lost their eyesight.
As of 1962, Lapidus said, The critics still hated my work, whether
curved or bent, but clients wanted more and more of the sweeping forms.
Lapidus's luxurious high-rise hotels came to define the leading American
resorts, especially those of Florida and Las Vegas. By 1985, when
critics still didn't appreciate his work, he folded up his office
and said to hell with it. It took two large trucks to consign all
the materials to the flames, he wrote in his autobiography Too Much
is Never Enough. He had billed $50 million during his career, and
should have realized that this sum was the surest mark of appreciation
in the land of the American Dream.
Just as Lapidus was burning his life's work, postmodernism was taking
hold in architecture, and the buildings he had designed three decades
earlier became prophetic. In the years before he died at age 98, Lapidus
resumed his design work and received accolades. He could write, plausibly,
if perhaps wrongly, that his ideals would be the model for twenty-first
Lapidus' first architectural commission was the Fontainbleau in Miami
Beach. Built in 1954, it had more than 500 rooms arranged in a quarter-circle
curve. There was a terrarium in the lobby with live alligators. There
was a stairway to nowhere so that glamorous guests could deposit their
coats at the top and parade back down. His obsession with detail extended
to bellboys' uniforms, done in purple with gold braid. The critic
Anna Louise Huxtable memorably described them as looking "like
an exploding eggplant".
Nearly all his buildings featured famous devices that would be come
the cliches of a certain brand of kitschy buildings: woggles, shaped
like an artist's palette or a boomerang that showed up in cutouts
in ceilings or in the shape of tables; cheese holes, amoeboid cutouts
in walls; and beanpoles, metal rods supporting nothing. His work was
the height of excess.
Of course the critics went crazy. The architectural hero of the day
was the dean of the Bauhaus, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose austere
glass and steel Seagram Building in New York was erected to critical
huzzahs four years after the Fontainbleau. Lapidus hated Bauhaus boxes.
I thought van der Rohe was an idiot. Less is more. How stupid can
you be. Less is not more. Less is nothing, he wrote in Too Much is
Never Enough He further wrote:
Such words did not trip lightly from a man whose mother had dragged
her Jewish family from anti-Semitic Russia to the United States in
the first years of the twentieth century. Raised on New York's lower
east side, Lapidus lived a script of the American Dream: ghetto boyhood,
scholarships to higher education, and professional training in architecture
at Columbia. The first two decades of his career were spent creating
revolutionary store designs. Curved exteriors with innovative art
deco motifs drew shoppers inside. Lapidus was one of the first to
create storefronts with wide glass facades through which customers
could view the actual store. His designs eliminated the system where
clerks stood behind counters guarding the merchandise, instead allowing
customers to wander and handle the goods. After WWII he designed stores
By the early 50s he had developed a bunch of principles that
he called theories:
Lapidus liked to say that he was designing fantasy buildings. When
people went on vacation, they wanted to be treated to their fantasies
of luxury. The hotels were like be like movie sets, and the Fontainebleau
was featured in the film Goldfinger - Agent 007 caught the eponymous
villain cheating at cards there. The designer of stores now sought
to sell people a good time.
- Get rid of corners
- Use sweeping lines
- Use light to create unusual effects
- Use plenty of color
- Try to get drama
- Keep changing the floor levels
- People are attracted to light (The Moth Complex)
Before the Fontainebleau's 27 colors of paint had dried, Lapidus had
his second big commission, the Eden Rock, a luxury hotel to be located
right next door. I don't care if it's Baroque or Brooklyn said the
developer of the Eden Rock. Just get me plenty of glamour and make
sure it screams luxury. Elizabeth Taylor had her birthday party at
the Eden Rock. Jayne Mansfield honeymooned there.
Commissions started pouring in - damn the critics, there was money
to be made. Soon Lapidus was doing hotels in every fantasy zone of
the country: in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, the Catskills (Grossingers
and The Concord) and in New York, where he designed The Americana,
the first hotel to be built in Manhattan in 30 years. Erected at a
prominent location on Seventh Avenue, it was a major statement as
well as an engineering feat: the tallest concrete building in the
world at 550 feet. Critics in his home town were livid. The Americana
was a beaux art building doing the twist. Lewis Mumford, critic of
purposeless materialism, said it looked like an open paperback.
Even as Lapidus found greater success and raised his fees, his anger
at his profession festered. Professional architectural publications
were as dismissive of his art as critics in the popular press. Time
has made their critiques seem at least overstated. Lapidus's announced
goal was that his buildings' exterior should express what went on
inside. They just happened to be about fun and luxury and fantasy.
This was a goal worthy of the International Style. What, after all,
could be more Bauhaus? Form follows function. Lapidus was putting
the fun back into function. It's done because people need something
to give them a lift, He told the New York Times. It's the crazy hat
for a woman, the bright tie for men. And he was designing resort hotels,
not glorified prisons and formicaries for office-workering city dwellers.
From this perspective the critics look even snootier. They didn't
want people to have fun. Lapidus certainly felt that way: The critics
were not going to be guests at the Fontainebleau.
Still, even today when exuberant buildings dot skylines across the
nation, Lapidus's hotels seem gauche. It comes as no shock that he
was for many years an architect for the Trumps. A former collaborator,
working on a commission for the H.J. Heinz company, once told Lapidus,
That's where you and I differ, Morris. I will not put a pickle on
top of my building. Lapidus would have made the pickle bigger.
The man without a school - postmodernism was far in the future when
Lapidus was in his prime - called himself a Neoplasticist. The moniker
hasn't caught on, but the principle has. The profession that he hated
when he burned his papers embraced him at the end. "That's the
one thing I'm eternally grateful for", he said in 1997. That
I've lived to see my work accepted. Lapidus said that his life was
indelibly changed when he saw Coney Island's gleaming Luna Park as
a child. It was his American Dream come true.