Edifice Rex

The old man doesn't have to wait long to prove his point. Where upward-flaring, stainless-steel columns once graced the grand, sweeping entranceway of the Fontainebleau Hilton Resort and Spa on Miami Beach's Collins Avenue, spindly shafts now stand. "I hate to go back into these places," he mutters as he steps from the car. Bowed forward from age and an aching back, he clamps his hands behind his waist for balance and heads into the building he designed 40 years ago, pausing not a moment to assess the newest damage done to his creation. "I didn't want to come here anyway."

Ninety-year-old Morris Lapidus wanders around the lobby, studying the changes that numerous designers have wrought on his original structure, searching for evidence of what made the Fontainebleau one of the most famous hotels in the world A and one of the most reviled among architectural critics. "The whole thing is different," he snaps in his crusty Brooklyn accent, his mouth fixed in a droop of displeasure. "They've wallpapered all these rosewood panels." It's a decades-old design change that Lapidus has seen many times before in this lobby, but it still upsets him.

A fit, compact man who moves with the ease and coordination of someone 30 years his junior, Lapidus wanders over to the elevators that connect the lobby with the shopping arcade below. They, too, are a years-old perversion, slicing straight through his original design. "It destroyed everything," he says. "There used to be islands and carpets and chairs here. But now there's not a single place to sit down. And the mural set it all off. They got rid of it, too.

"The planter under the staircase was mine," Lapidus goes on, "but it had a couple of marble statues. Where they are, I don't know." He turns his weary eyes back toward the center of the room, as if looking for vestiges of the exciting lobby he created, with its colossal chandeliers and ostentatious stairway and faux columns flooded with light, features of an aesthetic that in many ways defined the gilded glamour look of Miami Beach in the Fifties. "Some day," he says, "somebody's going to paint these columns." Then, under his breath: "Nothing surprises me any more."

After a life like Lapidus's, that's not hard to believe. From his humble beginnings in the ghettos of New York, he became one of the nation's premier store-designers during the Thirties and Forties, revolutionizing the aesthetic of commerce. As a hotel architect in the next two decades, he was made wealthy by clients, adored by hotel guests, but excoriated by critics and members of the architectural establishment, who considered his work kitsch, schlock. Other Lapidus projects included dozens of apartment and office buildings, hospitals, a school, synagogues, theaters, restaurants, and one of the first pedestrian-only, open-air commercial boulevards in the U.S.: Lincoln Road Mall.

By now much of Lapidus's work has vanished. Nearly all the hotel interiors have been remodeled, some of the buildings have been torn down, the storefronts and shops have long since disappeared. But the past couple of years have seen a resurgence of interest in his work. He is the subject of a recently published book in Germany, he has been invited to lecture at the University of Miami and at Yale University, and his work is to be showcased at an upcoming exhibit at the Bass Museum of Art. Perhaps most significantly, he has emerged from a nine-year retirement to design the interior of a new restaurant on Lincoln Road. "If I don't die a hero, I'd die a martyr," he muses. "So I think I'll stay around a little longer."

But for a man who spent so much of his professional life as a critical outcast, he adapts to the new role of the beloved one with some awkwardness. Even as he continues his tour farther up Collins Avenue to the Eden Roc Hotel, whose owner is currently restoring some of his neo-baroque interior designs, he carries on his quiet tirade against the shortsighted designers and hoteliers who corrupted his ideas.

"Miserable day," he says to the hotel's owner by way of greeting, although not unkindly. "Not as bad as yesterday, I guess." Accompanied by the manager, a chubby, overly genial sort, Lapidus points out that a huge chandelier that once adorned the lobby is long gone. He gestures to a white, paneled wall where he once commissioned a Chinese artist to paint a mural depicting Marco Polo's journey to China. The mural, he says, was stripped and covered years ago. "This is criminal," he snorts. "They ruined it. This has been my trouble with every hotel I designed."

In an upper-floor suite overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the manager hopefully displays several restored Lapidus creations: the upholstered headboards, the lamp with oval shades and a base formed by three miniature Roman columns, dresser knobs embellished with the hotel's calligraphic initials. The architect surveys the room and, to the manager's visible relief, says he likes it. But downstairs in the main dining room, Lapidus again turns morose. Mirrors cover walls where copies of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century masterpieces once hung, another years-old redesign Lapidus still isn't used to. Artificial plants occupy niches where he had placed whimsical statues of satyrs playing golf and tennis and pursuing other resort activities. "All kinds of innovations that I had, all gone," he pronounces.

"Not all gone," the manager interrupts. "Still here!"
"All gone," Lapidus contradicts solemnly.
Though Lapidus later admits he is encouraged by the Eden Roc's attempts at restoration, he believes firmly that too much, elsewhere, has disappeared. "Things change," he acknowledges, as if trying to rationalize the perishability of his legacy. "So much changes." Even after so many years in the business, it's clear he hasn't come to terms with the great paradox of an architect's work: that whatever he leaves behind in his bid for immortality -- permanent and intransigent as it may seem -- is in reality very vulnerable, almost always doomed.

It's rare to hear Morris Lapidus make a disparaging remark about any of his own designs. "I don't think he has any perspective on his own work," observes William Kearns, a Miami Beach-based architect and admirer of Lapidus who occasionally lectures about the elder architect's career. "He has a well-developed defense mechanism since he's been under attack for so long. If he gave in one inch, he's scared the whole house will come crumbling down."

But Lapidus's attitude -- a steely self-confidence -- may just as well be a reflection of the same chutzpah that propelled him from humble beginnings through his long, eventful career. Several weeks shy of his 91st birthday, Lapidus has been afforded the luxury of a long view of his life, which he clearly enjoys talking about. He doesn't get around much any more, especially since the passing in 1992 of Beatrice, his wife of 63 years, but he genially welcomes visitors to his apartment, in an uncharacteristically plain-looking building he designed on Belle Isle in the early 1960s.

Plentiful booty collected during three around-the-world trips litters his sprawling one-bedroom duplex: Russian samovars, Japanese figurines, woodcarvings from Africa, an impressive collection of ashtrays lifted from hotels and restaurants abroad. "My wife had a way of taking them," Lapidus confesses. "At some places she was satisfied with one or two. At some places she would go until she had a dozen. They wouldn't know who was taking them, so they'd stop putting out more." Like much of the interior decoration, the molded Lucite chairs and breakfast table where he is sitting are his own creation. Everything here is pure Lapidus: exuberant, eclectic, gaudy. Gold brocade-clad furniture and white leather sofas. Marble and crystal lamps. A master bedroom, predominantly pink in color, with crystal knobs on the closet doors and a Japanese bridal gown hanging on the wall above the bed. A bathroom with gold sink fixtures and a mirror ringed with dressing-room lights. A dining nook outlined by thin, carved wooden pillars colored gold at the top, walls covered in a silvery paper that resembles large fish scales. A spiral staircase with lighted niches for an assortment of Murano glass animal sculpture. Water colors and oils hung throughout, all painted by Lapidus. "Everything here, I designed," he announces. "I think you'll find me an individual of many talents. I guess you could call me a Renaissance man. I'm old enough to say, 'Yes, I am.' I've had an interesting life. A hard life, but an interesting life."

Indeed, age has afforded the architect a certain frankness about himself and his life, and has forgivingly spared him the frustration of memory loss. Born in Russia in 1902, he will tell you, he emigrated to the United States with his parents when he was six years old and lived his early years on Manhattan's Lower East Side and in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. He became interested in the theater while at New York University and decided to become a scenic designer, enrolling in architecture school at Columbia University.

"My father was very self-conscious when he entered Columbia, because most of the people in his class were sons of the WASP aristocracy," says Alan Lapidus, one of the architect's two sons. "He was the only Jew at Columbia. In fact, I always remember him talking in the perfect King's English, which was a reaction, because he arrived at Columbia speaking with a thick Lower East Side accent." According to Alan, who is also an architect, his father never forgot his roots. "He was very glad that he was working in a field that was denied to Jews. He never had a sense of himself that he was a great architect."

Nonetheless, Lapidus excelled and eventually cast aside the notion of a career in theater. "In school, I was the top man," he boasts. "My sketches, my renderings.... You know, it's hard to talk about yourself, but I was way ahead of everybody else. I guess I'm old enough now to say that."

After Columbia, he passed through a few dead-end jobs before his drafting skills landed him a position with a store-design firm. Over the next twenty-plus years, he designed about 500 stores, becoming in the process a psychologist of the American shopper. His objective was simple enough: to seduce potential buyers. To this end, he experimented with the shape of the storefront and the use of windows, creative lighting, bright colors, and decorative accents.

Three forms became Lapidus's
signature design elements: the beanpole, the cheese hole, and the woggle. Beanpoles were thin rods grouped in different configurations or suspended individually to delineate space or to display wares. Cheese holes were actual holes in walls, through which light could be shone or merchandise displayed. Woggles were undulating patterns and shapes -- meandering lines in the carpet, amoeba-shape holes in a wall, the outline of a curved counter.

"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.

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."

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."

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.

"He goes into the paint store and says, 'What's the most attractive, magnetic color you have here?'" 23-year-old restaurateur Jennifer Rubell observes. "The phrase 'in bad taste' is not an issue for him. He doesn't have that kind of taste problem, those restrictions. I never would have anticipated that he'd go for Day-Glo colors and black floor. People get hemmed in to a certain type of statement; Morris's stuff is so diverse. He's also interested in having palpable relevance to the younger generation. I think he wants to have an influence on the younger generation."

The project hasn't proceeded without some artistic and practical confrontations stemming from philosophical differences. For one thing, Jennifer Rubell had to convince Lapidus that booths were appropriate for an upscale restaurant. "Banquettes used to be associated with the shittiest diners," she explains. "Now they have another meaning." Plans for the restaurant now include three booths. "We have a certain routine," she says, grinning. "I bring him brunch and then during the meal I say, 'So, Morris....' I suggest that maybe the banquettes will be a certain way. He'll say, 'Absolutely not! If the banquettes are like that, I'm walking off the job!' Then I'll say, 'I wouldn't do anything that would make you walk off the job, Morris.' We work it out like that."

Just as Lapidus's return to the mall has given new life and relevance to his 35-year-old mall design, the restaurant project has restored some creative energy in his life. "He turned to me once over brunch," recalls Jennifer Rubell, "and said, 'You know, after my wife died, I really didn't think I was going to go on. This project has really given me a reason to go on.'

"The one thing that's really upsetting," she adds, "is that this will be the only piece of architecture that's exactly as Morris designed it.


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