Pattern Recognition

Pattern Recognition

Temple Menorah, Miami Beach, Florida, 1962
Courtesy Morris Lapidus Archives

Pattern Recognition
Morris Lapidus: The Architecture of Joy
Deborah Desilets
Rizzoli, $65.00

Deborah Desilets subscribes to the notion that images of architecture have critical value as well as the ability to convey an immediate psychological message that is sometimes more effective than words. To that end, her new book, The Architecture of Joy, mainly consists of a carefully curated selection of pictures that document the illustrious career of one of the most prolific architects of our time, Morris Lapidus. Lapidus’ work represents an exotic brand of the International style that became central to the formation of Miami’s cultural identity during the mid-twentieth century. Although image-heavy, the book includes a foreword by hotelier Ian Schrager and two essays, one by Desilets and the other by Lapidus entitled “Motion and Emotion in Architecture” (based on an acceptance speech for a National Design Award in 2000). Around these short texts, images of Lapidus’ work are organized into chapters by building type—hotels and resorts, retail, commercial and public, and residential—each with a succinct introduction by Desilets.

Mangel’s Department Store, Philadelphia, 1943 (left); the Americana Hotel, Bal Harour, Florida, 1956 (right).
Courtesy Morris Lapidus Archives and Ezra Stoller / ESTO [Click to enlarge.]

As The Architecture of Joy makes clear, Lapidus recognized Miami’s sub-tropical allure as a destination spot. It’s here that he created a genre of luxury design infused with pop culture, a style of architecture that amplifies experience through theatrical force and creative programmatic sequencing. Most of the photographs in the book are black and white, and this mode of representation is particularly revealing with regard to building exteriors, allowing instant apprehension of the clean lines and flowing spaces that characterize Lapidusian space. Whereas Lapidus’ interiors are defined by a combination of patterns and space-making from textures, materials, curves, and general oddities (hats, busts, bird cages), his exteriors are those of an architect that is beyond shock value. The black and white imagery confronts the reader with the seriousness of his facades, and though his interiors are remarkable, Lapidus is first and foremost invested in branded wrappers replete with dramatic gestures that convey his understanding of light, dark, shade, shadow, volume, and the negotiation of site. The photographs, taken over time by a variety of photographers that include Peter Bromer, James Forney, and the team of Samuel Gottscho-William Schleisner, to name a few, introduce mis-en-scene to each image; context is critical to an understanding of Lapidus’ work.

In her essay, it’s clear that Desilets, an artist, former marketing director for Arcquitectonica, and, as custodian of his archives, Lapidus’ last collaborator, considers Lapidus to be a cult hero who hasn’t quite received the recognition he deserves. She inflates Lapidus’ bad boy image as a fantasist with “near encyclopedic recall of styles” while insightfully describing his general approach to work, if in a overly worshipful tone: “Lapidus embellished his interiors with his sense of emotion and motion, where the joyous celebration of life and all the particularly human occurences would occur–laughter talking, whispering, dancing, all feelings in the human drama. Like a maestro, he used the rules of patterns, symmetry, and asymmetry, and broke them all.” Though Desilets often seems to impose too much of her subjective opinion on what could be a more serious critical exegesis of Lapidus’ legitimacy—especially given the range of powerful images—the author does offer a useful outline of the architect’s career. Through all the gushing emotions, the reader may still perceive Lapidus’ governing principles: the necessity of ornament; a predisposition for luxury, pleasure, and experience; surface dematerialization through the use of form, texture, and color; the value of “shock and awe”; and ephemerality underscored by lighting and formal plasticity.

The lobby of the Eden Roc Hotel, Miami Beach, 1955.
Ezra Stoller / ESTO

“Motion and Emotion in Architecture,” Lapidus in his own words, offers a more down-to-earth look at the architect’s approach. Here, Lapidus ties his career back to a fundamental concept of movement that he associated with the material of the human soul. For Lapidus, architecture can be reduced to seven “guidelines”—a list of elements, from color to stairways to “delight”—that should be considered essential to his manifesto. While on a surface level this manifesto may be looked upon as one written by an outlier, it also indicates a deep bond with humanity, one which calls into question Lapidus’ unfortunate alienation in terms of publication and reception.

The Eden Roc Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida, 1955 (left) and the Fountainebleau, Miami Beach, Florida, 1952-1954 (right).
Courtesy Morris Lapidus Archives [Click to enlarge.]

The two essays are essential to this study of Lapidus, but it is the photographs that create the overarching mood of The Architecture of Joy and offer something for every architecturally-minded reader. On hotel envelopes: the Algiers Hotel, with it’s amazing tectonics and formal coding of balconies, its rhythmic expressions of slab, punched textures, and symbolic drop-off, and its ground-level retail defined by both canopy and second-story semi-private spaces with an architectural language of their own. On office buildings: the variety of wall types exhibited in the Morris Lapidus Offices, the Meridian, and the Bay Towers. On luxurious and sophisticated interior design: the lobbies of the Algiers or DiLido, or the extravagant spaces of Fountainebleau or Eden Roc. And last but not least: Lapidus’ trademark retail environments: the theatrical early projects in which he gained knowledge that informs nearly all of his later work. For someone who did so much over such an extended period of time, there is an unbelievable consistency that seems to be an impossible accomplishment. But, as demonstrated by Desilet’s book, the proof is there in black and white.