Ahead of the Curves

The troubling case of Morris Lapidus came to mind recently when my daughter and I happened by the Sheraton he designed (originally the Americana) on Seventh Avenue at 52nd Street. I pointed out the vertical crease folding the 60-story slab of rooms into a giant V and asked if she saw movement in the form (how would a 6-year-old understand that a building could move?). “Yes, it’s very bendy,” she replied, not missing a beat.

Intelligible to a kid, perhaps, but that bend and all the other folds and curves and swoops and woggles in his long career eluded a generation of architecture critics. Unable to see the buildings for the cherubs and chandeliers, they so reviled the architect that his name became an adjective of derision (he nearly sued the Times for regularly using Lapidus-like as shorthand for bad taste). Of course, Lapidus, who designed the famous Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels in Miami as well as the Summit and Sheraton Motor Inn in New York, outlasted most of his critics, and so four months ago, the bitterness turned sweet when the 97-year-old accepted a tribute as an “American Original” in the first National Design Awards Gala, held at the Cooper-Hewitt. With the help of a walker he made his way to the podium and delivered an eloquent speech about designing for people. He hid any sign of his frailty: The voice was measured and sonorous, the accent distinguished – learned long ago in acting class by this child of Russian immigrants. “The award was the most important thing in his life,” says his son, architect Alan Lapidus. Two months later, on January 18, Lapidus died.

In truth, Morris Lapidus was much more of an American original than that faintly praising term would imply. Our architectural tradition derives from America’s manifest determination to push beyond boundaries into open frontier – which in architecture has meant breaking the box. Frank Lloyd Wright broke it in midwestern suburbs with hovering horizontal planes that echoed the infinity of the horizon. Lapidus did it in the city, where the challenge is more difficult. He was a pragmatist, not a theoretician, and he first broke the box by necessity in his petri dish, the New York store. With rents determined by the amount of frontage, stores in the twenties and thirties were narrow and deep. Lapidus became an Alfred Hitchcock among architects by learning how to create spatial suspense that would lead customers from the front all the way to the back. “I hated boxes, so all of my stores had sweeping curves and lines,” he told me in Miami not long before he died. “I kept moving people – the space seems to go on and on.”

Lapidus discovered that if he curved the space with serpentine walls, people would meander to the far side: The waves pulled them like an undertow. If he lit the back more than the front, a “moth” effect would kick in. Along the way, he broke up any surface that was flat and boring, especially the ceiling, where light glowed from invisible sources. His spatial maneuvers became a personal signature as well as an emblem of the times. More important, he emerged as a behaviorist: There was psychology to space.

All architects who do interiors ache to design freestanding buildings, and in the early fifties, Lapidus got his big break with the Fontainebleau commission. Though he had been trained at Columbia before modernism, his years in store design had made him an autodidact, and when he approached the huge hotel project, he knew things very few other architects did about handling space. Lapidus simply applied the same principles he had used in the stores, and created a confident plan of great sweep and formal invention.

“I let my emotions, my design ability, my artistry, my everything, go,” he remembered. “The plan resembles nothing from the past. There’s hardly a straight line in it – it just moves, with one curve going one way, and another in the opposite direction. There’s no end.” At Eden Roc, there were four level changes in the lobby area. A perceptual psychologist would say that shifting the point of view prompts people to move: Arthur Murray would say Lapidus twirled guests like a dancer into other dimensions.

In New York he applied the lessons he’d learned in Florida to pieces of the city’s grid: This time, the New York box was much larger, and he proceeded to break it with the bendy forms from Florida. The Americana V was a stupendous declaration of architectural independence within the grid much like Wright’s Guggenheim. But movement alone was not the point: The pragmatist could pack more rooms into the V, and the shape itself provided wind bracing that would have been much more expensive to build internally.

The trouble in New York, as in Miami, was the decoration, some of which went over the top: “He was praised for it in his stores and damned for it in his buildings,” says his son. “It was the mystery of his life. He was getting beat up and didn’t know why. The decoration masked some amazing architecture.”

The staircase at the end of the Summit lobby, the mural in back, the clear Lucite chairs all fooled people into thinking the tiny lobby was generous. Lapidus was creating spatial illusions. Blinkered critics didn’t understand this architecture in a broader cultural context. You had to see the lozenge shapes in the drum at the base of the Americana in the context of the tail fins parked out front: This was a motor hotel in the city. Lacerated in the press, Lapidus eventually incinerated his drawings. His lessons were lost to a field that capitulated to the Prussian rigors of the Bauhaus.

In the past several years, Lapidus enjoyed a second act when he came out of retirement with the help of an able architectural associate, Deborah Desilets. She proved to be the editor he needed, and a handful of projects – particularly a storefront restaurant in Miami – had a clarity that revealed the underlying principles. With her encouragement, the nonagenarian re-created lost sketches of his hotels that proved the theories. At the end of his life, he said, “I do still believe in ornament and strong color, and I still hate boxes.”

It is now fashionable to say that Lapidus was a postmodernist avant la lettre and that he democratized the luxury hotel with his populist touch. This is true, to a certain extent. But the plans, with all their movement, show that he expanded architecture’s spatial and emotional range. There was always delight in the sense of unfolding discovery. Despite the chorus of jeers, Morris Lapidus was a serious architect: He understood space.

Ahead of the Curves