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Miami Beach 411
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Miami Beach History
Morris Lapidus Biography


If 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 century architecture.

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 for Levittown.

By the early 50s he had developed a bunch of principles that he called theories:
  • 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)
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.

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.

Miami Beach history guide
Art Deco Styles  

Morris Lapidus Bio in Miami Beach 411's History section.
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