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.

Bauhaus-inspired modernism, dominated by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and Walter Gropius, ruled the day, with its cold, unadorned rectangles of glass and steel and its "form follows function" aesthetic. "Anything that wasn't Mies or Gropius or in that school was looked upon as total kitsch," explains architect William Kearns. "And Morris didn't seem to give a damn."

Though he paid for his insouciance -- "I was shocked," Lapidus exclaims, thrusting his thick hands in the air at the memory of the Fontainebleau's bad press -- he persevered. In 1954 he moved to Miami Beach and opened a branch office of his New York firm. "I said, 'To hell with all of them,' because another hotel came along right away. That was the Eden Roc. They wouldn't publish that, either," he adds.

The commissions continued -- and the scorn. "Let's not have any more snake dances on Lexington Avenue," shot the editor of Architectural Forum, referring to the S-shaped Summit Hotel in New York. Sniped another critic: "Somehow its knees look detached from its thighs; it might be the old Beaux Art apartments of the Thirties trying to do the twist."

The 1963 annual convention of the American Institute of Architects was held at the Lapidus-designed Americana Hotel (later to become the Sheraton Bal Harbour Resort). The subject was "A Quest for Quality of Architecture," but the venue became the truncheon with which the panelists soundly beat its designer. Lapidus recalls the occasion in An Architecture of Joy:

"Sir Basil Spence, one of the panelists, the British architect who designed the world-famous Coventry Cathedral, said, 'As I approached the hotel, I thought it would bite me.' Robert Anshen, the well-known California architect, said, 'This hotel is built of thin, cheap, improbable materials. It is incompetent, uncomfortable, and a monument to vulgarity.' Another distinguished panelist, Dr. Edward Hall of Washington, an anthropologist, whose convention role was a discussion of man's relation to his environment, commented that a bird's nest was better architecturally than the room he had at the hotel."

The onslaught didn't stop. In a 1970 review of an Architectural League of New York exhibit devoted to Lapidus's work, a critic for the New York Times dubbed him "The High Priest of High Kitsch." Of the exhibit, the writer complained: "One man's joy is another man's hell. I have never felt more joyless than in Miami in the midst of all that joy. I was depressed in direct ratio of aesthetic illiteracy and hokey pretension to the shoddiness of the execution. I got a terrible case of the Fontaineblues.

"Undeniably, Mr. Lapidus has elevated a kind of taste to a kind of art, even if it is made of plastic, mirrors, and spit.... To those who have always loved what he does, it is super-glamour. To the young and the older professionals who have recently come to love it, it is super-camp." Lapidus's work, the writer concluded, was "uninspired superschlock."

Lapidus says he absorbed the pummeling as best he could, while refusing to conform. "The top critics in New York A I can't remember their names now A they each took a crack at me. It hurt like hell, but I said, 'They're not going to change me. I'm not going to build glass boxes.'" The criticism, however, did slice deeply. According to his son Alan, Lapidus was so distraught by the negative reaction to his work that he never permitted a photograph of the Fontainebleau to hang in any of his offices.

Lapidus does acknowledge the frivolity and silliness of some of his design characteristics. In the lobby of the Americana, for instance, he put a 40-foot-high glass terrarium, open to the sky, containing a 25-foot concrete mountain. He wanted monkeys to live there; instead, the hotel owners permitted three baby alligators to take up residence. "I wanted a feature that would give people a lift," he explains. "There was no great amount of thinking, except I wanted something that would make people feel they were checking into a Florida resort. Instead of looking at furniture, they could look at tropical plants and, through the hole in the ceiling, the sky. Somebody compared it to the hats women wore at the time, with feathers and flowers: it was eye-catching and different, something that had never been done before."

He was 82 at the time, but it wasn't old age that drove Lapidus into retirement in 1984. He just couldn't get enough work. "I was in this depression period in 1980-81," he explains. "I was doing some apartment housing, but I hate apartment houses A no challenge." Then, the final blow: a hotel project in Beijing, China, for which he'd been hired on as architect, collapsed. "That week, I said, 'To hell with the whole thing,'" he recalls. "'I'm closing the office at the end of the week.' I didn't want to do any more hotels. I didn't want to do any more apartment buildings. I didn't want to do anything." He didn't get any offers, either.

Turning to writing, Lapidus completed three books. Two of them -- a memoir of his early life called A Pyramid in Brooklyn and an exploration of human history prior to the Roman Empire, titled Man's Three-million Year Odyssey -- he self-published. The third, a work of fiction, is still in draft form. Then, in February 1992, Beatrice died. "I couldn't get over her death," Lapidus admits, his eyebrows plunging low in consternation. "For me, life was finished. She was such a wonderful, wonderful woman. She was very fun-loving, very outgoing. She liked to travel, she liked to go to parties. And she ran my finances outside of the business. We made a very good team, a wonderful team."

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