Baroque buildings: When too much is never enough

People do swim there, but Miami Beach's true vocation has been to showcase years of unrestrained American taste - rhinestone sunglasses, flamingo-shaped swizzle sticks, and above all, a profusion of zany but spectacular hotels and motels.

Eye-grabbing edifices such as the Fountainebleau, Americana, and Eden Roc were all built in the '50s by the undisputed master of "flabbergast architecture" Morris Lapidus.

Critics called it "boarding house baroque," but Mr. Lapidus's self-proclaimed "walk in and drop dead" showmanship drew big names and crowds, including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., both of whom performed at the Fountainbleau.

After falling out of favor, or to the wrecking ball, kitschy and cantilevered 1950s buildings are attracting new enthusiasts.

Architecture usually undergoes a historical reassessment at 50 years, experts point out, but there may also be a sense of nostalgia driving the renewed affection and respect for futuristic designs.

"The architecture of the 1950s provides a cocoonlike feeling," says trendspotter Faith Popcorn. "We like how it transports us to a time and place that are familiar and nonthreatening."

Tired of 'the box'

But others say the whimsy and creativity is attractive to young architects weary of "the box" shape of traditional edifices - architects who now have computers that can design just about any shape they can dream up.

"There's a whimsical aspect that is interesting for younger architects today," says Jean-Franois Lejeune, associate professor of architecture and urban design at the University of Miami. "Since computers allow more possibilities in imagining shapes, people are looking back, hoping to go even beyond what they accomplished in the '50s. It was vernacular, it was popular. People are a little tired of the box."

Americans were tired of the box during the 1950s as well.

"After years of pent-up demand from the Depression and the war, people were looking for a good reason to be irrational," said author and cultural historian Thomas Hine at a Miami Modern seminar held recently. "I'd like to dispel the myth that the 1950s was the capital of 'normal.' In fact, it was an extraordinary period for design. And Miami Beach in the '50s reached a pinnacle."

Along a less-expensive stretch of Miami Beach real estate in the mid-1950s, Norman Giller was building motels, over 60 of them, with names like the Sahara, Dunes, Tangiers, or the faux Navajo Thunderbird.

Before Disney's theme parks, these low-budget fantasies captivated vacationers with pastiche exoticism and other stunts, such as a drive-through entrance under a space-age see-through lobby.

His improbably named Suez Motel, facing the Atlantic Ocean, comes replete with two sphinxes and a pyramid in the driveway.

One reason for the flash was simple: "We had to get the attention of the motorist!" says Mr. Giller, the unheralded Michelangelo of the motel. "Driving along at 50 m.p.h. back then, you made a selection because something in the design caught your eye," Giller says of attracting the new middle-class vacationers. "The personality or pizzazz gave people some core reason to stay there. They'd have their picture taken next to the sphinx."

Mr. Giller, an octogenarian who continues to design projects with his son Ira, seems almost bemused by the hoopla now surrounding "mid-century American" style, as it's being called.

"When the Suez or the Fountainebleau went up, these new things seemed shocking, crass. In hindsight we see these guys as mavericks, they opened doors," says Bill Lane, who worked with avant garde architect Rem Koolhaas. "Then they become part of our historical past, and are validated. Their work has liberated many young architects."

Surviving decades of derision

No one has mixed high modern with high fun better than Mr. Lapidus.

Building curvy space-age shapes all lit as if for the movies, having immense gold columns disappear into ceiling lights like flying saucers, Lapidus would pile on colors and gold leaf.

Then, the man whose memoir is titled "Too Much Is Never Enough," would toss in busts of Louis XIV, live alligators, oversized chandeliers, and "why not? niches" with standing classical sculptures - one swinging a golf club, one fishing, another on the phone.

His apartment - with its oversized chandeliers, white silk, and vinyl walls - will be installed in Miami Beach's Bass Museum. The installation would be the first such reconstruction within museum walls of a contemporary architect's dwelling, although it's not clear if Lapidus's collection of objets d'art from places like Bali and Easter Island - not to mention his hundreds of bowties - will also make the transfer.

Lapidus immigrated as an infant from Russia to a gas-lit tenement on New York's Lower East side. A visit to Coney Island with his favorite uncle remains one of his seminal memories, and the inspiration for his work.

"The night was lit up by so many electric lights, the shapes and movement and color were something I could not imagine existed," he says. "Since then in my work, I've always tried to capture the glamour and joyous wonder I experienced as a child."

At age 97, after decades of derision so scathing that a few years ago he destroyed the drawings and plans for most of his life's labor, Lapidus is comforted by growing respect for his work.

"A French writer told me recently, 'You could have died a martyr," he says. "But you've lived long enough to become a hero.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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