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.

The critical recognition has arrived too late to assuage Lapidus's vexation, however. "Here is a man who completely changed the direction of architecture -- the Fontainebleau was a new way of looking at resort hotels," says Alan Lapidus. "Here is a person whose work is studied all over the world. But the man was never made a fellow of the [American Institute of Architects] -- in fact the AIA censured him once. The man has received no professional honors whatsoever, he has never even received an invitation to give a lecture at Columbia, his alma mater. They've never asked for his drawings.... Yeah, I can understand why he's bitter. I'm bitter."

To make matters worse, most of Lapidus's projects have been significantly redesigned, to the point where the mere mention of some buildings visibly upsets him. The Americana/Sheraton Bal Harbour is especially nettlesome. "It's had so many changes. They've ruined it! I can't even recognize it now," he fumes. "Some of the things they did to the interior are just monstrous, awful! To describe all the changes, I'd spend all day talking to you."

Of course Lapidus himself has played the role of remodeler on scores of projects, the usurper of another's original intent. "There have been times when an architect has come back to me and said, 'Why did you do it?' And I would say, 'Because I was asked to, and I had the ideas,'" he declares. "When I redesigned, I did make it contemporary or modern or whatever else you'd call it. But my own hotels, especially the Americana, what they did was horrendous." To visit the site, he says, would make him very sick.

It was in the interest of preservation that Mera Rubell and her daughter Jennifer zeroed in on Lapidus to design Jennifer's new restaurant in Miami Beach. "We were thinking about the preservation of some of the structures that he created for Lincoln Road," says Mera Rubell, a developer and art collector. "They have been abandoned and lost the energy and excitement that Morris had intended. One city official, whose name I wouldn't mention, said, 'If a bulldozer took them away tomorrow, who cares?'"

Lapidus renovated Lincoln Road in 1958, transforming it from a vehicular thoroughfare to a pedestrian-only shopping mall. Down the center of what once was the street, he created eclectic shade pavilions in the shape of pie wedges, trapezoids, and zigzags, as well as colorful sculpture, zebra-striped paths, and fountains. If Lapidus were to reconnect with the road, Rubell figured, the emotional weight of his presence would reinvigorate his mall designs and thwart the bulldozers. (Aristides Millas, an architecture professor at UM and the historic consultant to the team leading the current multimillion-dollar redesign of Lincoln Road, says plans for the mall's overhaul incorporate many of Lapidus's pavilions and some of the fountains.)

For the restaurant, the Rubells want to capture the exuberance and joy of Lapidus's unique aesthetic. "When you spend time with Morris, you realize that age has given him more freedom than ever to think about wonderful things," says Mera Rubell. "It's unobstructed by the things that usually enter our thoughts when dealing with profit margins. He has the ability to be a serious freethinker. When you step outside expectations, that's when you create something totally original."

"I laughed at them," Lapidus recalls of the invitation to work again. "I said, 'Hell, I can't design anything. It's been nine years.'" But he accepted the job under two conditions: that he be able to select the architect of his choosing (William Kearns), and that he receive no payment. He refused money, he says, because it would screw up his taxes. Moreover, working for free provides him with valuable leverage. "It guaranteed that no one would disagree with anything I said," he explains. "I would be in complete control."

It was an architect's fantasy: Lapidus was handed raw space -- in this case, 3000 square feet at 601 Lincoln Road, on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue -- and told to create his dream restaurant. He was going to be the ideas man; Kearns would put it on paper. "The overall scheme is his," explains Kearns, who was one of the co-designers of the highly praised transformation of the Washington Storage Company on Washington Avenue into the Wolfsonian Foundation Museum. "But I have leeway within his -- I won't call it 'dogma' -- within his concepts."

"It's going to be like walking into a surrealistic painting, and you, as a diner, become part of the painting," Lapidus says of the 100-seat restaurant, which is expected to open early next year. "I feel like I'm left over from an era that's gone. Customs change. Manner of living changes. The days of the luxury resort hotel are over. But when I do that restaurant, that'll be a restaurant of the future. It's going to put this town on its ear!"

Not surprisingly, Lapidus's signature quirks enliven the architectural drawings: woggle-shape holes in the wall, backlit in bright colors; a wall of cheese holes, each displaying a glass ball; a serpentine bar; no visible source of illumination. The floor is black; gold wallpaper and Day-Glo colors will blanket the room ("Wild colors!" Lapidus exclaims. "Colors I never dared to use!"). Furniture fabrics will be a painter's palette of hues. For the outside, Lapidus envisions an arcade of white chairs and tables for dining beneath his pavilions, illuminated by a festival of lights.

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