If You Build It, They Will Swoon

We live in the age of the celebrity architect: Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, Frank Gehry, Charles Gwathmey, Michael Graves, Laurinda Spear, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Their names are almost as familiar as those of Madonna, Brad Pitt, and Puff Daddy. Whether they've designed the house you live in, the linens you sleep on, the tea kettle whistling on your stove, or the museum just down the street, architects get almost as much press as their creations.

But the architect as showman (or woman) is nothing new, in real life or fiction. Consider designer Howard Roark, the arrogant protagonist of Ayn Rand's 1943 novel The Fountainhead. That character was modeled on the imperious Frank Lloyd Wright, who dreamed up houses that hung off ledges yet were somehow beautiful, functional, and safe.

It's not surprising, then, that architects are known for having big egos. What greater rush could there be than creating structures that stand the test of time and hold up to all sorts of neglect by humans? What could make one feel more godlike? Except, perhaps, to walk on water?

If your favorite aspiring builders have developed a god complex of late, don't worry. They may just be planning to enter the American Institute of Architects' Walk on Water competition, one of the many events featured in the organization's Architecture Week, taking place from November 6 through 13. The festivities begin Friday with a golf tournament and photo exhibition in Coral Gables and continue with a birdhouse design competition in Homestead. The following days include an evening cruise, a trolley tour, and lectures by Architecture magazine editor Reed Kroloff and internationally known architects Richard Legoretta and Miami Beach's own Morris Lapidus.

With his grandiose vision and splendid buildings, Lapidus may be thought of as the Orson Welles of American architects. His fantastic designs for the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels were sneered at by the architectural establishment as garish. Like the filmmaker, he garnered little respect throughout much of his career -- until just recently. Now at age 96 the man who created Lincoln Road is enjoying recognition as the next big thing.

Although Lapidus is quite vital for his age, don't count on watching him sashay across any bodies of water. That will be left to the participants of the Walk on Water contest, the brainchild of FIU associate professor of architecture Jaime Canaves, who originated the match nine years ago as an assignment for his course dealing with materials and methods of construction. The competition challenges students to create shoes that will allow them to sprint across the 250-foot lake behind the library at FIU's University Park campus. Joining the roster of Architecture Week activities for the first time this year, the event offers a grand prize of $300 and is also open to the public.

The lighthearted meet attracts plenty of spectators and media attention. Unbelievably, drowning is not the number-one fear of participants. According to Canaves, it's "making a fool of themselves on TV." Balance and traction are key to staying above water rather than in it. Any materials can be used in the shoes except mechanical devices. "I recommend against using steel and concrete," Canaves notes dryly.

To win the race, it helps not to be six feet tall and 200 pounds, but being female is a plus. Several past winners were women, including last year's victor, who clocked in at two minutes, 40 seconds. "Many female students and professors say it's because women are smarter and better," explains Canaves, "and there's no way I'm going to disagree with that!" At last, a humble architect.

-- Nina Korman

Architecture Week begins 11:00 a.m. Friday, November 6, at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave, Coral Gables, and continues at 6:00 p.m. at Homestead Town Hall, 41 N Krome Ave. The golf tournament costs $125. Admission to most events is free. See "Calendar Events," page 45, for more details or call 305-448-7488.

 
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