7, 2000, Thursday
HOUSE & HOME/STYLE DESK
Building Outside the (Gray) Box: A Legacy of Curves and Colors
By BONNIE SCHWARTZ ( Interview ) 1197 wordsWHEN
Morris Lapidus, who is 97 and architect of the iconic, mid-50's Fontaine
bleu Hilton and Eden Roc hotels in Miami Beach and more than 1,000 other
projects, was in town recently, he had lunch with his colleague Philip
Johnson as well as his former clients, the brothers Tisch. Between lunches
with friends and meetings with manufacturers to discuss licensing his
product designs, Mr. Lapidus sat briefly in Central Park, recounting some
of his most memorable New York projects and looking back on his life as a
Q: What was your most significant New York project?
A: The Summit Hotel on Lexington Avenue [currently the Loews
Hotel, now under renovation and scheduled to reopen as the Metropolitan
Hotel]. When it opened in the 60's it was the most hated hotel in New
York. New Yorkers couldn't stand it because I used so much color. People
here like things gray.
It was a beautiful, fresh and bright hotel. One critic said that you
had to put your sunglasses on when you walked in. The exterior was bright,
too, clad with multicolored terra cotta. It was a beautiful place. Inside,
I designed Lucite furniture so it wouldn't look cluttered, as the lobby
was very, very narrow. I used every trick I knew to make it an exciting
place, but New York hated it. People poked fun at it, but it was a very
Q: Your most unusual project?
swimming pool in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. I knew the
neighborhood because I went to Brooklyn Boys' High School. It was actually
a whole park -- all concrete. I built two swimming pools there, a diving
pool and a long, Olympic-size pool, plus a grandstand. The most unusual
thing about it was I created climbing structures for the kids, including a
stepped, pyramid-shaped one that hid the pipes that ventilated the pool.
That was some project. It took years to build.
Q: Some of your
largest New York projects?
A: I did a very large apartment complex
called Trump Village in Coney Island, with large grounds and walkways and
gardens and a shopping complex. That was for Donald Trump's father. I also
did the Americana Hotel on Seventh Avenue [now the Sheraton New York Hotel
and Towers], which has about 2,000 rooms and is about 600 feet high.
That's the largest single building I have ever done, and though it has
been renovated over the years by other designers, its basic form is still
as I originally designed it.
Q: You have always been an iconoclast
in the field of architecture. What separated you from the pack?
I study people, not geometry. I look at how people react to the forms of
architecture and have noticed certain things. People like bright colors.
They are drawn to them. People are also like moths; they are drawn to
light. Without knowing it, people gravitate to the brightest spots in a
room. People like to meander -- we don't walk like soldiers in straight
lines. So I have always created sweeping, curving, organic interiors,
never rectilinear ones. I know that people love adornment and I give it to
them. To me adornment has never been a dirty word.
I started out as a store designer and I learned everything I know from
that base. When I finally got to do the Fontainebleu, I was able to
incorporate all the things I had learned from my store work. It was a
great success and people loved it. But the architects thought it was an
atrocity; the design was totally antithetical to the Modernist cube. From
that point on, for nearly 30 years, my work was never published. Still,
clients loved it. For many years I had two large offices, one in New York,
one in Miami, and work was always plentiful.
Q: What put you and
your work back on the map?
A: It was 1990 and I had retired. I had
given up trying to explain what I was doing and had actually thrown away
most of my drawings in a Dumpster. Then a Swiss publisher, Birkhauser,
called and said that European architects were clamoring to get their hands
on anything at all I had done. So Birkhauser commissioned a book and I
gave the publisher access to all of my photos. In 1992 I was invited to
the Netherlands where an exhibition of these photos had been mounted.
While I was there the first copy of the book arrived from the publisher.
It was called ''Morris Lapidus: The Architect of the American Dream.''
Suddenly the whole world woke up. Even the American architects went for
Q: Do you feel that your work has substantially influenced the
work of others?
A: Absolutely. Now I am seeing buildings done in
the style of my own. Philip Johnson's Lipstick Building is a good example
-- I think even he would admit that I have had an affect on how he thinks
about shapes. Other architects are beginning to round the corners of their
buildings, too. Whether they admit it is because of my influence or not, I
don't know. I do know that now my work is considered a source that young
architects look at and try to emulate. For me, it's a vindication.
Q: What is your prognosis for the future of architecture?
A: The 21st century will once and for all forget about building
huge boxes. Buildings will curve, they will sweep, they will be colorfully
lighted at night and they will have all sorts of ornament. The human
species genetically reacts to curves. Early men built round huts, not
square ones. Caves curved and swept.
Q: Who were your greatest
A: Oscar Niemeyer, who curved all of his buildings.
And, of course, Le Corbusier, who did rectangular buildings, but his
greatest building is a sweeping, curving monastery. And then there is
Frank Lloyd Wright, who always did squares and rectangles, but whose
Guggenheim Museum is one huge spiral. Sooner or later all the great ones
lose the boxes and rectangles.
Q: What have you not had a chance
to build that you would like to?
A: I have two projects I have
designed that would be a dream to see built. One is my Helix Building, a
round building that is in constant motion. The other is a hotel that gets
larger as it spirals up. But I don't know that I really want to build
anymore. I will be 98 in November. I'll talk about things and hope to
leave an influence, but no more buildings.
Copyright 2002 The
New York Times Company