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.

Lapidus, though, has survived to witness a gradual reassessment of his work, a reappraisal that has occurred within the context of an evolution of ideas about architecture. "I think everyone just got tired of the sterility of strict rectilinear design and was looking for examples of different types of modern architecture," says William Kearns. "There was Morris doing his thing all along, oblivious to the canons of modern taste. He turned out to be full of fun. There's nothing ponderous about anything he ever did."

Adds Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a Miami architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Miami: "I think he represents an important period after the war, a kind of revitalized excitement about Miami Beach. Curiously enough, the theatricality of his work was a premonition of the interest the place now has for the movie industry. He understood that his hotels were backdrops for people behaving in self-conscious ways. It's not just about function or shelter. It's about setting the stage for human activity."

Lapidus has become somewhat of a darling of the postmodernists, a school of art that arose in rebellion to the orthodoxy and austerity of modernism. The great American architect Philip Johnson, in fact, was quoted in a 1990 French Vogue magazine article saying he regards Lapidus as the pioneer of postmodernism. The aesthetic, which emerged in the 1960s and became prominent in the late 1970s, is characterized by the incorporation of classical details, the use of decorative structural elements, and an exaggerated style. "Historicism was ridiculed at the time Lapidus was building his hotels," says Jan Hochstim, a professor of architecture at UM. "You couldn't ornament buildings. You couldn't make any references to history. That was the dogma of modernism."

Martina Duttmann, a German architecture writer who authored the only book ever written about Lapidus, says he has always been more highly regarded in Europe than in the U.S. "In the United States, Morris was famous and very condemned, but he was judged on the level of style," says Duttmann, whose Morris Lapidus: Architect of the American Dream was published last year. "Europeans have always seen how he does a really good job of bringing together construction, function, and cost, while also fulfilling the task of style." Even as Lapidus satisfied his customers, he was able to engage in his stylistic "fantasy playing," says Duttmann, who plans to reprint in Germany an updated version of Lapidus's 1967 textbook Architecture: -- Profession and a Business. (Lapidus also wrote a book in 1973 about hotel design.)

Lapidus himself seems pleased with the newfound critical attention, if somewhat bitter at its tardiness: the books, the invitations to lecture, the upcoming exhibit at the Bass, scheduled to open December 23. "I got a call from my son. He says someone at Columbia is writing a book about the architecture of the Fifties and Sixties in New York, and my work will be represented. These things are coming one day after another," he declares. "I really can't believe all this is happening." He proudly shows off several recent articles in European publications: French Vogue; Britain's newspaper the Independent and its leading architecture journal, Blueprint; Italy's Domus, another architectural magazine. He keeps the periodicals on his desk, alongside copies of his books and the recently published German retrospective.

"My father is sort of the opposite of the prototypical architect," observes Alan Lapidus. "Sure, he has an ego as healthy as anybody else's, but not as gross as the charlatans who proclaim a new movement every other month." This attitude might be best reflected in the cavalier attitude Lapidus demonstrated toward the record of his own work -- the sketches, the drawings, the plans. According to his son, only a handful of drawings are left. "He had a very workmanlike approach to his work," Alan Lapidus says. "So many architects today have a sense that every little excretion that comes out of the pencil is a monument for the ages."

Lapidus, however, is not about to allow his historic contributions to go overlooked, no matter how dubiously others may regard their impact. He opens one book to a photograph showing the sweeping, curving exterior of the Fontainebleau. Framing a section of the edifice with his hands, he asks, "Could this be the famous I.M. Pei?" referring to the architect whose work includes the addition to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., Boston's Government Center, and the CenTrust Tower (now International Place) in Miami. His voice is laced with a tinge of resentment. "Could this be Pei?" he repeats, gesturing with a nod toward the slice of Fontainebleau. "Look at the CenTrust Building, it's exactly this." But when asked who influenced his work, Lapidus quickly shakes his head. "No one."

"The funny thing is, he didn't invent curvilinear buildings," notes Jan Hochstim. "He takes a little more credit for it than he probably should. Look at the work of [Prussian-born American architect Erich] Mendelssohn. I'm sure that I.M. Pei, if he did something, he wouldn't look at Lapidus. He'd look at Mendelssohn. But as a hotel architect, he did a tremendous job. You could say he elevated architecture to a fun level in hotels."

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