Edifice Rex

The establishment hated him, but resort-goers thought his designs were the best thing since room service. If it was fun, funky, and Fifties in Miami Beach, chances are Morris Lapidus dreamed it up.

"Not all gone," the manager interrupts. "Still here!"
"All gone," Lapidus contradicts solemnly.
Though Lapidus later admits he is encouraged by the Eden Roc's attempts at restoration, he believes firmly that too much, elsewhere, has disappeared. "Things change," he acknowledges, as if trying to rationalize the perishability of his legacy. "So much changes." Even after so many years in the business, it's clear he hasn't come to terms with the great paradox of an architect's work: that whatever he leaves behind in his bid for immortality -- permanent and intransigent as it may seem -- is in reality very vulnerable, almost always doomed.

It's rare to hear Morris Lapidus make a disparaging remark about any of his own designs. "I don't think he has any perspective on his own work," observes William Kearns, a Miami Beach-based architect and admirer of Lapidus who occasionally lectures about the elder architect's career. "He has a well-developed defense mechanism since he's been under attack for so long. If he gave in one inch, he's scared the whole house will come crumbling down."

But Lapidus's attitude -- a steely self-confidence -- may just as well be a reflection of the same chutzpah that propelled him from humble beginnings through his long, eventful career. Several weeks shy of his 91st birthday, Lapidus has been afforded the luxury of a long view of his life, which he clearly enjoys talking about. He doesn't get around much any more, especially since the passing in 1992 of Beatrice, his wife of 63 years, but he genially welcomes visitors to his apartment, in an uncharacteristically plain-looking building he designed on Belle Isle in the early 1960s.

Plentiful booty collected during three around-the-world trips litters his sprawling one-bedroom duplex: Russian samovars, Japanese figurines, woodcarvings from Africa, an impressive collection of ashtrays lifted from hotels and restaurants abroad. "My wife had a way of taking them," Lapidus confesses. "At some places she was satisfied with one or two. At some places she would go until she had a dozen. They wouldn't know who was taking them, so they'd stop putting out more." Like much of the interior decoration, the molded Lucite chairs and breakfast table where he is sitting are his own creation. Everything here is pure Lapidus: exuberant, eclectic, gaudy. Gold brocade-clad furniture and white leather sofas. Marble and crystal lamps. A master bedroom, predominantly pink in color, with crystal knobs on the closet doors and a Japanese bridal gown hanging on the wall above the bed. A bathroom with gold sink fixtures and a mirror ringed with dressing-room lights. A dining nook outlined by thin, carved wooden pillars colored gold at the top, walls covered in a silvery paper that resembles large fish scales. A spiral staircase with lighted niches for an assortment of Murano glass animal sculpture. Water colors and oils hung throughout, all painted by Lapidus. "Everything here, I designed," he announces. "I think you'll find me an individual of many talents. I guess you could call me a Renaissance man. I'm old enough to say, 'Yes, I am.' I've had an interesting life. A hard life, but an interesting life."

Indeed, age has afforded the architect a certain frankness about himself and his life, and has forgivingly spared him the frustration of memory loss. Born in Russia in 1902, he will tell you, he emigrated to the United States with his parents when he was six years old and lived his early years on Manhattan's Lower East Side and in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. He became interested in the theater while at New York University and decided to become a scenic designer, enrolling in architecture school at Columbia University.

"My father was very self-conscious when he entered Columbia, because most of the people in his class were sons of the WASP aristocracy," says Alan Lapidus, one of the architect's two sons. "He was the only Jew at Columbia. In fact, I always remember him talking in the perfect King's English, which was a reaction, because he arrived at Columbia speaking with a thick Lower East Side accent." According to Alan, who is also an architect, his father never forgot his roots. "He was very glad that he was working in a field that was denied to Jews. He never had a sense of himself that he was a great architect."

Nonetheless, Lapidus excelled and eventually cast aside the notion of a career in theater. "In school, I was the top man," he boasts. "My sketches, my renderings.... You know, it's hard to talk about yourself, but I was way ahead of everybody else. I guess I'm old enough now to say that."

After Columbia, he passed through a few dead-end jobs before his drafting skills landed him a position with a store-design firm. Over the next twenty-plus years, he designed about 500 stores, becoming in the process a psychologist of the American shopper. His objective was simple enough: to seduce potential buyers. To this end, he experimented with the shape of the storefront and the use of windows, creative lighting, bright colors, and decorative accents.

Three forms became Lapidus's
signature design elements: the beanpole, the cheese hole, and the woggle. Beanpoles were thin rods grouped in different configurations or suspended individually to delineate space or to display wares. Cheese holes were actual holes in walls, through which light could be shone or merchandise displayed. Woggles were undulating patterns and shapes -- meandering lines in the carpet, amoeba-shape holes in a wall, the outline of a curved counter.

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