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.

"My store work became so well recognized, I earned an enviable reputation," he says. "I revolutionized modern merchandising. I said, 'You don't need salespeople to show you merchandise. Self-selection is the thing to come. Use whatever medium you can to attract attention. Light -- brilliantly lit windows, tremendous use of neon all over the storefront. Don't separate the storefront from the interior, use only glass.'" -- doctoral thesis completed by a student at Yale years later, Lapidus notes, confirmed that he had indeed pioneered many aspects of shop design that were to become part of the standard repertoire of merchandisers. (These designs now exist only in the form of photographs and slides; Lapidus says all the buildings have been remodeled or torn down.)

In 1949 his career moved into new realms, when he was asked to look over plans for a hotel in Miami Beach. Over dinner with the builder, the late Ben Novak, Lapidus suggested some improvements and scrawled a few sketches. So impressed was Novak with the designer's refreshing ideas that he hired him as associate architect for the job.

"If I could make successful stores -- and I was a really successful store architect -- why couldn't I use the same principle for hotels?" Lapidus reasoned. Unlike the middle-class clientele who frequented the Art Deco hotels on South Beach, his patrons would be the nouveaux riches who had come into their wealth during and immediately following the war. "If you were going to stay at a resort hotel, you wanted to get away from everything: forget the office, the house, the kids, the bills. The clients of my hotels were, at that time, all first-generation Americans who'd made their money the hard way. What they considered wonderful and beautiful and indicative of wealth is what they saw in the movies. They had never visited the manors of Europe or the beautiful homes in the United States. So what I did was create a background which would fit their image of the great life." Rather than promoting the sale of merchandise, Lapidus says, "I was selling luxury."

He carried over to his hotel designs the ideas that had served him well in stores: woggle-shape carpets; cheese holes in floating ceilings and sweeping, curved walls; terraces that ascended and descended for no apparent reason; grand circular stairways; vibrant colors; beanpoles on which hung bird cages filled with live birds. "An exuberance of motion," he termed it in his 1979 book Architecture of Joy. "All this might be called artificial and flamboyant by the purists, but who cared? It was colorful and exciting. It was fun."

The completion of that first hotel, the Sans Souci (still located on Collins Avenue), launched his new career as an associate architect. Miami Beach was experiencing a postwar boom in building and tourism, which for Lapidus meant a quick succession of hotel projects, including the Nautilus, the Di Lido, the Biltmore Terrace, and the Algiers, all along Collins Avenue. The big break came in 1952, when Ben Novak hired him to design the largest luxury hotel in Miami Beach. The Fontainebleau was to become Lapidus's best-known work.

"I designed the Fontainebleau in a curve and designed the rooms sweeping and curving," says the architect of his first solo hotel commission. "Don't use straight lines, use sweeping curves! That brings people in. They love it! There wasn't a plan in the world that was ever done like this: the Romans, the Greeks, the Gothic cathedrals, the Renaissance. No one designed in these crazy shapes." With 550 rooms, the Fontainebleau was huge (another 656 rooms would be added with a 1960s addition). The lobby included large, oval columns with vertical stripes of marble and gold, illuminated at the top; enormous crystal chandeliers; and a free-floating staircase with no visible supports, which became known as "the staircase to nowhere." The architect, who says he hasn't worn a straight tie since his school days, punctuated the design with a white marble floor patterned with black bow-tie shapes. ("I guess I wanted to leave my mark," he comments.) As he would on most of his projects, Lapidus had a hand in everything -- from designing the furniture to choosing the colors of the suites to styling the uniforms for bellhops and chambermaids.

"At the opening, they invited the mayor of Fontainebleau, France," he recalls, "and this poor little Frenchman was wandering around, bemused. I went up to him and said, 'What do you think of this?' He replied, 'C'est une bouillabaisse.' I didn't know how to take it, so I asked him if he liked bouillabaisse. He said, 'It's my favorite dish.'

"When the hotel opened, it became instantly famous. I've become very egotistical, but I have to be an egotist to say I did it."

Lapidus needed to be an egotist to buttress himself against the critical attack that began even as the first guest checked into the Fontainebleau. The editor of Architectural Forum, at that time the most prestigious architectural magazine in the U.S., refused to write about the hotel, an honor accorded the best new buildings. "The editor told me, 'Morris, you've gone absolutely nuts,'" Lapidus recalls. "What the hell kind of a building did you design?'" Another journal, Progressive Architecture, snubbed him as well.

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