Morris Lapidus: An Architecture of Joy

 

Morris Lapidus. Photo courtesy of the Economist.com

Morris Lapidus. Photo courtesy of the Economist.com

 Morris Lapidus’ iconic buildings have helped make Miami Beach the glamorous city that it is. His glitziest constructions–the Fontainebleau, Americana and Eden Roc hotels–have been and still are playgrounds for the rich and famous. But who was Morris Lapidus? And where did he find inspiration?

Morris Lapidus was born on November 25, 1902 in Odessa, Ukraine. Shortly after his birth, Lapidus and his family fled their native country, fearing they would be persecuted for their Orthodox Jewish beliefs during the Russian pogroms. Lapidus and his family arrived to the United States and settled in lower Manhattan, before moving to Brooklyn. Lapidus graduated from the Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Originally, he wanted to become an actor and chose to pursue a degree in drama at New York University.He later transferred to Columbia University’s School of Architecture during the 1920s, eager to become a movie set designer.

Lapidus was fascinated by the groundbreaking modernism of European architects such as Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Eliel Saarinen. While still earning his degree, Lapidus was hired at prominent New York architecture firm Warren and Whetmore. He received his bachelor’s degree in Architecture from Columbia in 1927. After graduating, Lapidus was hired by the architectural firm Block and Hess.

Lapidus developed his distinct style when he began working at Ross-Frankel, a firm which specialized in storefront design. He created distinctive, modern storefronts which used color and light to draw in customers, a technique he called “the moth effect.” He also developed some of his most iconic design elements known as “cheese holes,” “woggles” and “bean poles.” He continued to use those signature shapes throughout his career.

Lapidus worked for Ross-Frankel for 15 years, then opened his own storefront design firm during World War II. He continued designing storefronts until a client introduced him to hotel mogul Ben Novak, who was working on the Sans Souci Hotel (now the RIU hotel) in Miami Beach. Novak had fired the original architect Roy France and brought Lapidus on board to finish the hotel.

The Sans Souci Hotel. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

The Sans Souci Hotel. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida.

One of Lapidus’ most famous architectural commissions was the Fontainebleau Hotel, also in Miami Beach. Lapidus drew some of inspiration for the hotel’s lobby from set designs of old Hollywood films, mainly Busby Berkeley musicals. Completed in 1954, it had more than 500 rooms arranged in a quarter-circle curve. There was even a terrarium in the lobby with live alligators. Lapidus placed a stairway to nowhere so that glamorous guests could show off their elegant attire the top of the stairs.

In addition to the hotels he worked on, Lapidus also designed a number of other public spaces. One of his most famous was the 1960 redesign of Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, one of the nation’s first pedestrian malls. Lapidus continued to enjoy a rewarding career in hotel design throughout the 1970’s. In 1983, Morris Lapidus retired and destroyed most of his architectural renderings.

Lapidus often found his work bashed by critics who found it puzzling. Art in America Magazine described his designs as “Pornography of Architecture.” His reputation was revived when an exhibition of his work called “An Architecture of Joy” was curated by the Architectural League of New York in the late 1970s.

Morris Lapidus died at home of heart failure, on January 18, 2001 at the age of 98. He was survived by his wife Beatrice Perlman, and two sons: Richard Lapidus, a lawyer, and Alan Lapidus, who  became an architect like his father. Intermingled with South Beach’s classic Art Deco style, Morris Lapidus’ iconic buildings will always be the archetype of Miami Beach’s distinctive appearance.

-Ursa Gil

 

Additional Sources:

“Miami Beach HistoryMorris Lapidus Biography.” Morris Lapidus Biography. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 July 2015.

20, January. “Morris Lapidus; Architect Designed Opulent Hotels, Won Belated Critical Acclaim.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 20 Jan. 2001. Web. 13 July 2015.

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