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The Greatest Show on the Beach

08 August, 2010

The Greatest Show on the Beach

Morris Lapidus's Technicolor Fantasyland for Mr and Mrs America

By Styliane Philippou

Greek version

Ian Fleming's Floridiana Hotel, in Miami Beach, where James Bond's client, Mr Junius du Pont, had 'promise[d] to make [him] comfortable', was correctly matched in the film adaptation of Goldfinger with Morris Lapidus's Modernist Fontainebleau Hotel (1952-54), rather than with Miami's Mediterranean-style Hotel Floridian. Fleming does not appear enthusiastic about the architecture of the most expensive hotel in the world (at the time of its opening), or its 'rich and dull' gardens. Ηe obviously chose it as a representation of the 'easy, soft, high' life of 1959, and as the perfect setting for a gathering of American millionaires and secret agents, gamblers, gangsters, hitmen and prostitutes. Twenty years later, Oliver Stone's Scarface (1983) would also position the criminal Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a young Cuban immigrant, by the Fontainebleau poolside.

Directly below Bond['s Aloha Suite], the elegant curve of the Cabana Club swept down to the beach - two storeys of changing-rooms below a flat roof dotted with chairs and tables and an occasional red and white striped umbrella. Within the curve was the brilliant green oblong Olympic-length swimming-pool fringed on all sides by row upon row of mattressed steamer chairs on which the customers would soon be getting their fifty-dollar-a-day sunburn. White-jacketed men were working among them, straightening the lines of chairs, turning the mattresses and sweeping up yesterday's cigarette butts. Beyond, was the long, golden beach and the sea, and more men - raking the tideline, putting up the umbrellas, laying out mattresses.(1)

 

Extracts from the film Goldfinger, showing the Fontainebleau Hotel, in Miami Beach, Florida. Directed by Guy Hamilton, produced by EON Productions, released in 1964

 

 

The evening before, Bond had 'the most delicious meal...in his life', at the most expensive restaurant of Miami. But the thought of 'eating like a pig...the easy life, the rich life revolted him. He felt momentarily ashamed of his disgust...It was the puritan in him that couldn't take it.'(2) It was also Fleming's nod to his readers, barely out of the grim austerity of postwar Britain, where food was rationed until 1954, bombsites abounded, housing was severely substandard or temporary, smog was thick and yellow, and wartime shortages lingered to the end of the decade. Despite Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's optimistic 1957 assurance to his fellow Conservatives that 'most [of them had] never had it so good', outside lavatories and no central heating were still common. His calls for 'restraint and commonsense' were certainly not answered by Bond's life of oyster-and-champagne dining and air-conditioned vacationing.

But Cold-War America was a land of prosperity and spectacular economic growth. Following World War II, the United States had been catapulted to world power status. It was also the richest country in the world. The number of automobiles produced annually quadrupled between 1946 and 1955. The suburbs grew six times faster than the cities in the 'happy days' of the 1950s, and household consumption spiked to dizzying heights, aided by sophisticated television advertisements and newly-introduced credit cards. Firmly established as North America's winter playground with the largest concentration of hotels in the country, mid-century Miami became accessible to an ever wider public, although still exclusively white. But the small, urban, Art Deco hotel of Miami Beach, which had cheered and uplifted its glamour-starved, Depression-era clientele, no longer satisfied the needs of North America's new rich.(3) Catering to the postwar generation's pursuit of air-conditioned happiness and exotic pleasures demanded new fantasy settings, where they could indulge their dreams of a good life, shaped by television, popular magazines, romance novels, advertising and, above all, the movies.

To satisfy the expectations of these unprecedentedly affluent and increasingly suburban winter vacationers, the first hotel Morris Lapidus designed from the ground up in Miami Beach, at a distance from the urban centre, 'had to be fabulous. It had to live up to the dream picture, the dream drawn by the advertising people'.(4) Pitched to popular tastes and dreams of opulence and exotic escape, the 554-room ultra-luxury Fontainebleau defined the postwar Miami Beach resort hotel as a complete technicolor fantasy experience for 'Mr. and Mrs. America', for whom Lapidus had spent the previous three decades designing retail shops and other commercial spaces. For the average American, he observed, 'window shopping was one of the foremost pastimes'.(5) The new type of tourism and leisure enclave that he launched in Miami Beach offered the comforts and safety of the suburb with the excitement of the shopping mall, combined with the glamorous spaces of the country club, the glittering diversions of the beach town, the irresistible sets of Hollywood musicals, and the celebrity-strewn, sun-drenched tropical beach, all within the relaxed atmosphere of a fully-serviced and guarded gated community avant la lettre, recalling the legendary luxury ocean liner. The Fontainebleau, together with the other two 'flabbergast' resort hotels Lapidus designed in Miami Beach immediately after its completion, the Eden Roc and the Americana, became 'stereotypes of postwar American consumerism, of pretense, artifice, and vulgarity'.(6)

Lapidus cited with approval August L. Freundlich's remark, in the catalogue of the 1967 exhibition of his work, Forty Years of Art and Architecture, at the Lower Gallery of the University of Miami. Freundlich described Lapidus as an 'architect by training and a mob psychologist by choice'.(7) Focusing on his clients' commercial interests, Lapidus interpreted the hotel as 'another selling medium. What a resort hotel sold was a feeling of relaxed luxury and a freedom from the everyday humdrum existence that the guests were trying to escape. In short, the merchandise for sale was fun and rest and a good time physically and emotionally'.(8) Lapidus had begun his adult life as a stage-set designer and Broadway theatre actor, and as an architect he had acquired extensive experience 'studying what made people tick when they went shopping', and inventing new methods of luring consumers, like 'moths' to the light, into ever more theatrical displays of merchandise along 'Main Street USA...the best show in town'.(9) His portfolio included a huge number of designs for shops and department stores across the United States, many of which had been praised by the critics and published in trade journals; the Distilled Spirits Institute pavilion for the New York World's Fair of 1939; the New York offices of Seagram (1934) and the Seagram Bar (1936), in the Chrysler Building; a prototype for the postwar luxury cruise ship, commissioned by the ship-fitting company Aetna Marine; and, as associate architect primarily responsible for interiors, in collaboration with prominent local architects of the Art Deco era, five hotels in Miami Beach (Sans Souci, 1949, with Roy France; Nautilus, 1950, with Albert Anis; Biltmore Terrace, 1951, with Albert Anis; Algiers, 1952, with Melvin Grossman and Henry Hohauser; and DiLido, 1953, with Melvin Grossman).

 

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Hotel McAlpin (Lawrence Murray Dixon, 1940), a typical example of small Art Deco hotel in Miami Beach, left; and Hotel Biltmore Terrace (Albert Anis with Morris Lapidus, 1951), right. South Beach, City of Miami Beach, Florida. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

 

A Beaux-Arts-trained architect, Lapidus designed the principal volume of the Fontainebleau as a massive 'sweeping curve', possibly inspired by the guestroom wing of the resort hotel Oscar Niemeyer had designed for Pampulha, the new suburb of Belo Horizonte, ten years earlier (1943, unbuilt). Lapidus admired the work of the Brazilian Modernist, especially his Pampulha complex, and even visited Niemeyer in Rio de Janeiro, in 1949, although not his works.(10) The south-east facing, eleven-storey slab of the Fontainebleau contained the air-conditioned guestrooms, and penthouses with large terraces at the top three levels. These three continuous, cantilevered terraces and the two stacks of balconies on the narrow sides of the slab helped break the uniformity of the large volume, and streamline its ocean façade, a far more successful composition than the heavy-handed, concave, road elevation. The horizontally-striped guestroom wing was raised on a large pedestal, projecting on all sides and containing a vast array of themed social spaces, shopping alleys, entertainment and recreational facilities such as lounges, cafés and restaurants, nightclub and 3,000-seat ballroom, and services such as stock broking.

 

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Fontainebleau Hotel, Morris Lapidus, 1952-54, road (entrance) elevation, South Beach, City of Miami Beach, Florida. The Lady Normandie, by the waterfall, is a bronze statue salvaged from the SS Normandie, the celebrated French ocean liner (1932), purchased by Morris Lapidus in New York and painted white. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

 

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Fontainebleau Hotel, Morris Lapidus, 1952-54, south-east (ocean) elevation, South Beach, City of Miami Beach, Florida. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

 

Turned towards the French-style gardens and the largest of the three swimming pools, the monumental slab was counterbalanced by the transparent, projecting volumes of its two-storey pedestal, which nestled in its embrace. Lapidus did not miss the opportunity to provide a wide, curving staircase ascending from the garden (replaced by a swimming pool) to the dining room and lounge. A grand staircase, by a magnified Piranesian photomural, was also a focal point in the ornate, vast lobby. 'Most of my hotel interiors have grand staircases and most of these stairs go nowhere at all,' explains Lapidus. 'They may lead to a balcony or a mezzanine,' he continues, but they mainly satisfy people's desire 'to ascend or descend circular staircases in a grand manner as in the movies of Busby Berkley and the early musicals'.(11) A vast playground with sprawling gardens and outdoor recreational facilities for children and adults covered the entire area between the main building and the beach. Along the beachfront, a 250-unit, two-storey serpentine of cabanas ran the entire length of the site. (12)

 

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Fontainebleau Hotel, Morris Lapidus, 1952-54: staircase ascending from the garden (replaced by a swimming pool), left; and lobby staircase (the original hotel interiors, including the Piranesian photomural, have not survived), right. South Beach, City of Miami Beach, Florida. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

 

 

Musical number 'Dance Until Dawn', choreographed by Busby Berkeley, from the musical film Flying High, directed by Charles Reisner, produced by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM), released in 1931

 

The result of Lapidus's first exercise in designing an entire building of such proportions from scratch betrayed his lack of experience in handling a large programme in a precisely controlled manner, and a certain inability to sustain three-dimensional coherence in his volumetric compositions. At the Fontainebleau, the rather disjointed assemblage of volumes and elevations lacks fluency and fluidity, and often results in awkward and uncoordinated junctions that compromise the visual integrity of the ensemble and even of individual volumes, like that between the east stack of balconies and the adjacent, stepped, vertical element of the narrow, south elevation, a rather clumsy response to the desire for maximization of ocean views. Lapidus appears struggling to grasp and span the divide between Art Deco massing - despite the fact that he has produced the effect of mass in a volume with wraparound windows - and Modernist articulation of volumes.

Perhaps, Lapidus was unable to shake off a three-decade-long habit of dealing with buildings as mere containers for fabulous displays of attractive merchandise, fancy yet disposable wrappings aiming to attract consumers but not to distract from the far more important shopping experience they shelter. Significantly, Lapidus appears little interested in the articulation of the hotel building. In his memoirs, he dedicates several pages to the interiors of the Fontainebleau, taking real pleasure in detailing his business dealings with the client, his extravagant shopping expeditions, the fine cladding materials he selected for the interiors, the furniture and fixtures he designed, and the 'lovely antiques [he] strategically placed [around the hotel] to create the ultimate touch of authentic luxury'. With regard to the design of the building, however, he only says that he wanted to avoid 'the ubiquitous rectangle', and had his 'staff draw curved buildings, round buildings, Y-shaped buildings, snake-shaped buildings, every conceivable shape. The form that appeared most often was the curve,' he observed, and hence concluded: 'A sweeping curved building was what I wanted.'(13)

 

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Fontainebleau Hotel, Morris Lapidus, 1952-54: partial view of south-east elevation, left; and partial view of south elevation of the hotel's main slab (guestroom wing), right. South Beach, City of Miami Beach, Florida. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

 

Even though conceptually dull, not entirely successful or innovative in any way, the unambiguously Modernist, neutral exterior of the hotel contrasted sharply with the highly eclectic, overwhelming interior decor. Lapidus employed his tried-and-tested trademark vocabulary of lavish ornament and vibrant colour, 'swirling forms and exciting lighting...ubiquitous woggles, cheese holes' in sweeping walls and floating ceilings, and 'bean poles'.(14) What outraged the puritans and self-appointed arbiters of good taste, however, was that he also skilfully exploited all sorts of techniques of merchandise display, stage setting, commercial styling and theming, which he had mastered over the previous years, together with his superior understanding of popular tastes and American middle-class dreams manufactured by Hollywood, in order to sell the experience of living in a thrilling fantasyland. Before Disneyland (opened in 1955) and Las Vegas, at the Fontainebleau, Lapidus produced a highly popular and commercially extremely successful amusement resort, a magic kingdom with a wide range of rides on the theme his client defined as 'real luxury modern French Provincial': 'Old World luxury' was recreated in the café Chez Bon Bon, animated by campy statues with tutti-frutti hats; exotic themes were also explored in the Boom Boom Room; a neon-framed Baroque arch marked the entrance to the nightclub La Ronde, where the stage could be hydraulically adjusted; and the pie-shaped, atmospherically lit, prime dining venue, the Fleur de Lys restaurant, featured life-size figurines on rococo pedestals, candelabra on towers of porcelain vases atop marble columns, and gilt-encrusted, Louis XV-style furniture.

Lapidus refers to his acceptance of the imposed style at the Fontainebleau as a 'compromise', perhaps a compromise similar to the one he had made when he designed the New York offices of Seagram 'in an authentic Tudor style'.(15) Yet, he obviously enjoyed orchestrating his own version of lavish French château entertainment, comparable to those sumptuous and spectacular sixteenth-century court festivals hosted by Catherine de Médicis at her various French palaces, including the châteaux of Fontainebleau and Chenonceau, featuring singing sirens, dancing nymphs, tritons and many more fabulous creatures. To paraphrase MGM's (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) co-founder, Louis B. Mayer, Lapidus wanted to make 'beautiful [spaces] about beautiful people'. At the Fontainebleau, his plush decor was tonic and flattery for 'Mr. and Mrs. America', who felt like guests at the French court, 'ascend[ing] or descend[ing] staircases in a grand manner as in the movies'. In December 1902, Princeton University board member and future US president, Woodrow Wilson, had enthused to the readers of the Princeton Alumni Weekly about the fact that 'gothic architecture has added a thousand years to the history of the university, and has pointed every man's imagination to the earliest traditions of learning in the English-speaking race'.(16) Demetri Porphyrios extended that history in the same manner just two years ago. Even though despised and disparaged by the critics as low-brow concoctions indulging the tastes of uneducated folk, the 1950s' Old-World interiors of Lapidus fulfilled a similar purpose: they imparted an air of heritage and authenticity to Miami hotels, and pointed patrons' imagination to the earliest traditions of merry-making.

Like the puritan in agent 007, the puritan Modernist never came to terms with Lapidus's extravagant and exuberant Fontainebleau hotel, described by the architect himself as 'the crazy hat for a woman, the bright tie for men'. The architect who entitled his 1996 autobiography Too Much is Never Enough had spared no effort in his attempt to fulfil his client's dream of a modern French château, like 'a movie set', inspired by 'the elegance of Old Vienna at the height of the Strauss waltz era - Dresden figurines, rococo arches, gaslit crystal chandeliers, elegance, Old World luxury', places he had only studied in architecture school. He had realized, he wrote, 'that American taste was being influenced by the greatest mass media of entertainment of that time, the movies'. And he had resolved to design 'stage settings' with grand stairs, 'most [of which] go nowhere at all', choreographed entrance sequences, meandering routes and undulating paths - at times deliberately designed contrary to the logic of utility and practicality - platforms, balconies, mezzanines, 'terraces [going] up and down for no special reason in an exuberance of motion', murals and spotlights, convinced that 'people love to feel as if they are on stage when traveling or stopping at an elegant hotel'.(17) In his autobiography, Lapidus justified his sources on the basis of the capricious tastes of his 'illiterate and uncultured' clients and the hotel's equally 'illiterate and uncultured' guests:

What were the tastes of the vast majority of affluent Americans? What and who were the taste makers of the middle of the twentieth century? Bauhaus and the International School [sic] were considered the leaders of design, but were Americans accepting these imported theories of Gropius and Breuer and Mies van der Rohe? The answer was an emphatic 'no'! The critics loved it, but the critics were not going to be guests at the Fontainebleau.(18)


Unashamedly populist and unapologetically commercially-minded, always thinking of himself as a designer who had the power to grant Mr and Mrs America the fantastic experience of gliding across one splendid theatre stage and on to another, even if only for the duration of a short, privileged vacation, Lapidus clearly savoured the ride himself. Over the following years, he designed ever more adventurous interiors on a variety of themes, beginning with the Italianate rooms of the Eden Roc hotel (1955), commissioned immediately after the completion of the Fontainebleau, and constructed on an adjacent property to a design which reverted to the lexicon of Miami's Art Deco.(19) This time his client's brief was explicit: '"I don't care if it's Baroque or Brooklyn,' he screamed, "just get me plenty of glamor and make sure it screams luxury!"'(20) Lapidus relishes the details of his outlandish stage design for the drama he imagined unfolding in the spacious lobby of the Eden Roc:

The lobby was a huge circular space with a spiral stairway to nowhere. The main part of the lobby consisted of oval-shaped columns in rosewood with gold stripes separating the convex flutes. There were no capitals or bases. These columns never touched the huge disk-shaped ceilings. The lobby was enclosed by bronze and marble railings interspersed with short, fluted marble columns on which I mounted beautiful bronze figures that I purchased in Milan. Surrounding the railing, I used terrazzo (the entire floor was terrazzo) in a pattern of huge Greek anthemion, which people thought were palm fronds. A beautiful bronze-and-crystal chandelier hung from the center of the elegant disk-shaped ceiling.(21)

For the restaurant, he arranged to have smuggled in from Paris 'twenty-four copies of great pieces of art [from the Louvre] all to one size, about twenty-four inches square...with the Mona Lisa placed in a prominent position and spotlighted from a concealed powerful spotlight'.(22) Inspiration may have come from the Busby Berkeley musical Fashions of 1934 (1934), where the hero (Sherwood Nash, played by William Powell) asks his business partners: 'Gentlemen, why spend those thousands and thousands of dollars, when you can have the identical models delivered to you, direct from Paris, for a mere fraction of their present cost.'

 

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Eden Roc Hotel, Morris Lapidus, 1955, South Beach, City of Miami Beach, Florida. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

 

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Eden Roc Hotel, Morris Lapidus, 1955: lobby as it is today. South Beach, City of Miami Beach, Florida. Photographs by Styliane Philippou

 

For the Bal Harbour Americana hotel (1956, demolished in 2007), which far surpassed the Fontainebleau in spectacle and expense, and coincided with the development of the hemispheric culture and trade fair Interama, in Miami, Lapidus reinvented exoticist motifs from the Americas, from Copacabana's wavy, black-and-white pavements to Mayan friezes and Argentine rancheros. The circular lobby's focal point was a terrarium, open to the sky, with alligators among tropical vegetation.(23) For the Crystal House apartment building (1960-62), in Miami Beach, he accepted another compromise: 'The owner liked the work of Mies van der Rohe. I didn't, but I convinced him that [what I designed] was my own version of Mies.'(24) Interestingly, by now the theme of the Crystal House has become the ubiquitous period theme in the lobbies of corporate office buildings across the globe, a truly international (period) style that appears to cause no offence.

 

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Crystal House apartment building, Morris Lapidus, 1960-62, South Beach, City of Miami Beach, Florida. Photograph by Styliane Philippou

 

When the Fontainebleau opened for business, in December 1954, it had a staff to guest ratio of one and a half workers per guest, and a back-of-house infrastructure of colossal proportions. The architect himself had filled it with items he collected during shopping sprees in New York City and Belgium, bringing back from the latter twenty-seven train carriages full of precious booty.(25) Its christening Grand Ball that Christmas was graced with the presence of Homer Pajot, the mayor of the French town of Fontainebleau. The latter pronounced Lapidus's ostentatious concoction 'une bouillabaisse', but the diamond-and-fur-coat attired guests were awed that same 'fantastic evening...just like a movie with ten reels going at once,' as one of them said, a comment that would have pleased the hotel's designer. The architectural press, on the other hand, was not enthralled. Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record and Architectural Forum refused to publish a work which, as the editor of the latter told Lapidus, 'violated all the precepts of building design'.(26)

Critics were outraged, disgusted, mocking, vile, unforgiving. Their hostility was revived after a 1970 exhibition of Lapidus's work at the Architectural League of New York in 1970. The New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable denounced it as 'uninspired superschlock'. As Friedman points out, 'Huxtable's use of Yiddish words subtly raises the question of the hotel's Jewish architect and clientele, tinging the piece with anti-Semitism.'(27) In an article entitled 'Architect Deluxe of Miami Beach', a more sober Gilbert Millstein had written in 1957:

Miami Beach was created for the sole purpose of entertaining the well-to-do careworn and it is sedulously devoted to excess. Taken singly, its hotels are, by and large, less examples of  architecture  than  an  extension  of  the  carnival midway in concrete, lighted up at night like the entrance to the Tunnel of Love. The total effect is not unengaging, the impression of  luxury  is  not  false;  the  mixing  and  mingling  of  motifs  is  likely  to  amuse  the  worldly,  enrage  the  purist,  and  overwhelm  the  uninitiated;  the  food  is  fine,  and  only the snob could complain.(28)


Built on the Firestone estate, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Indian Creek, at the head of Millionaires' Row, at a cost of thirteen million USD (although the architect was paid only a minimal fee of 120,000 USD), the Fontainebleau was a commercial success for both its owners and Lapidus himself, earning the latter a stream of clients over the following decade. But as Alfred H. Barr, Jr, Director of New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), had predicted in the preface to The International Style, the publication which accompanied the exhibition of 1932 Modern Architecture, 'It is...from the commercially successful modernistic architects that we may expect the strongest opposition to the Style'.(29) Lapidus recalled that when he had suggested something 'contemporary' to the Eden Roc developer, Harry Mufson, the latter objected: 'my guests aren't kids out of school. They don't go for that modern jazz. I want antiques and crystal and marble and fancy woods.' Mufson wanted to 'make the guy who can afford to pay fifty bucks a day look around and think that a fortune had been spent to create my hotel'.(30) Lapidus's theatrical settings had to 'tickle', to 'amuse' and to 'please', to use the architect's own terms, but they also had to show that a lot of money had been spent.(31) 'To boast of the high cost of anything - the first boast of the contemporary film producer - was for architects in the worst taste', had warned Henry-Russell Hitchcock in 1952, in the catalogue of the exhibition Built in the USA: Post-war America, at the MoMA.(32) New York's architectural community loathed Lapidus's 800-room Americana East hotel (1961, renamed the Summit), in Manhattan: 'We are snobbishly intolerant in New York of the subculture of Florida, and we wish they would keep everything but their Pompano and oranges down there where it belongs and not foul our nest with their taste.'(33) Even though this time it was also against the hotel's slightly curved slab that the critics railed, it was primarily its Latin-American themed interiors that infuriated them.

What neither Lapidus's contemporary critics nor his later apologists seem to have accepted is that Lapidus's theatrically exaggerated interiors were devised as ephemeral consumer goods, mere merchandise or entertainment shows with a limited lifespan. In the case of a hotel, the guests do not have to live with their purchases for long; they knowingly buy the experience of living in its glamorous spaces for the limited period of their vacation. Lapidus addressed those postwar resort hotel consumers, who craved to be transported to a world entirely different to everyday experience. Since the 1930s, styling had been conceived and adopted by manufacturers in the US to promote mass consumption and spur economic growth. Through his long career in retail design, Lapidus was well versed in techniques 'of styling goods...raising them from the commonplace to the distinctive'. Roy Sheldon and Egmont Arens's book, Consumer Engineering: A New Technique for Prosperity, explained that these techniques 'are all determined by the need of surprising and satisfying latent and unsuspected demands and desires'.(34) Morris Lapidus's interiors were not revivalist; they did not imitate any real place. He had no intention to reproduce a room of the Italian Renaissance or of a gaucho ranch. He mixed all he could source that was 'fancy and whimsy' in order to induce a sense of euphoria and otherworldliness in the consumers, lower their inhibitions and sell the merchandise.(35) And, like Walt Disney, the developers of Las Vegas casino hotels and those of today's theme parks all around the world, from Japan's Tobu World Square to China's and Dubai's themed condominiums and hotels, Lapidus had realized that the goods that consumers would find irresistible, the desired hotel experience, had changed:

A home away from home? Absolutely not! Who wants a homey feeling on a vacation? The guests want to find a new experience - forget the office, the house, the kids, the bills.  Anything but that good old homey feeling that the old hotels used  to  see  with  a comfortable bed, a nice rocker on the veranda, a good solid nourishing meal. Not on your life!  We  were  coming  out  of  the  war  and  the  postwar period. People wanted fun,  excitement,  and  all  of  it  against  a  background  that was  colorful,  unexpected;  in  short,  the visual excitement that made people want to buy - in this case, to buy the tropic luxury of a wonderful vacation of fun in the sun.(36)


Like collegiate gothic university campuses across America, Lapidus's resort hotels candidly mixed the imagery from far away places and eras with semblances of truth, to produce fantastic landscapes that provided their audiences with opportunities to exercise willing suspension of disbelief. In his autobiography, Lapidus gives a touching account of his own experience as a child watching the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show at the Coney Island amusement park, in New York, when he truly believed it was all happening before his astounded eyes.(37) In Miami, he knew all too well that what he was designing were temporary conditions; their spell would dissipate once visitors stepped outside the resort's precincts, and summer would turn into winter again once tourists returned to their ordinary homes in the north. It was essential for the narrative success of these novel environments that the hotel served all the needs of its patrons throughout their vacation period, so that there would be no opportunity to interrupt the show and shatter the magic by stepping out into the city's streets. A breech of continuity would risk breaking the thrilling narrative and thus the willingly-accepted illusion; lapses were carefully controlled, opportunities for scepticism rigorously excluded.

Cleverly conjuring plots and theatre stages or rather movie sets, Lapidus designed a seamless array of performances, where guests were at once actors and theatre patrons, happily assuming the roles of the main characters - part decor-inspired, part true to reality - or acting out events they had rehearsed watching the movies. Technology made everything possible: the 13,000-ton air-conditioning system allowed ball guests to parade their expensive fur coats, and conveyor belts transported the dishes in the kitchens so that 3,000 meals could be served simultaneously. Television and the 'metropolis of make-believe' (Hollywood) had taught Mr and Mrs America how to willingly suspend disbelief naturally and unconsciously, and experience wonder and enjoyment without the risk of unpleasant experiences like the bloodcurdling fear of a pending massacre that had overwhelmed little Morris watching an army of 'naked Indians riding wild horses, swinging their tomahawks'.(38) And cinema had already irreversibly broken through the proscenium that divided traditional-theatre and early-cinema audiences from the stage. Busby Berkeley, the Broadway producer who infused Warner Bros.' musicals with visual spectacle and whom Lapidus counted as one of the greatest influences on his work, had fully exploited the new-found mobility of the camera to involve the audience in his film's climactic spectacles.(39) Lapidus employed the latest technology and a wide range of visually stimulating props and special effects to produce intoxicating adventurelands, and successfully blur the boundaries between fiction and real life, architecture and show business.

 

Musical number choreographed by Busby Berkeley, from the musical film Fashions of 1934, directed by William Dieterle, produced by  Warner Bros., released in 1934

 

Notes

1    Fleming, Ian, 2002, Goldfinger (London: Penguin [1959]), pp. 29, 12, 17, 30. Directed by Guy Hamilton and produced by EON Productions, the film version of Goldfinger was released in 1964. A clear reference to 'Fountain Blue', the local pronunciation of Fontainebleau is found in Ian Fleming's Thunderball, published in 1961.

2    Fleming, pp. 26-27.

3    See Philippou, Styliane, 2010, 'Learning from Miami: North America's Modern Pop Architecture', http://www.greekarchitects.gr/en/degrees/learning-from-miami-id3204

4    Morris Lapidus, cited in Friedman, Alice T., 2005, 'Merchandising Miami Beach: Morris Lapidus and the Architecture of Abundance', The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 25, The American Hotel theme issue, p. 243.

5    Lapidus, Morris, 1996, Too Much is Never Enough (New York: Rizzoli), p. 98.

6    Friedman, Alice T., 2000, 'The Luxury of Lapidus: Glamour, Class, and Architecture in Miami Beach', Harvard Design Magazine 11, Design and Class theme issue, Summer, http://www.gsd.harvard.edu/research/publications/hdm/back/11friedman.html

7    Lapidus, p. 99.

8    Lapidus, p. 144.

9    Lapidus, p. 98.

10  Lapidus, p. 149.

11  Lapidus, p. 186.

12  For a detailed description of the hotel's spaces and services, including those added in 1960, see Shulman, Allan T., 2009a, 'The Fontainebleau Hotel: Modernity, Decadence and the Iconography of Leisure'. In Shulman, Alan T. (ed.), Miami Modern Metropolis: Paradise and Paradox in Midcentury Architecture and Planning (Miami Beach, Florida: Bass Museum of Art and Glendale, California: Balcony Press), exhibition catalogue, pp. 316-18.

13  Lapidus, p. 158.

14  Lapidus, p. 136.

15  Lapidus, p. 164-65, 116.

16  Quoted in Woodman, Ellis, 2008, 'Porphyrios Associates' Princeton University Whitman Building', bd, 29 February.

17  Lapidus, pp. 165-66, 148, 186. Lapidus notes: 'In the Fontainebleau, guests go up three steps to arrive at the platform, walk out onto the platform, and then go down three steps. I have been waiting through the years for someone to tell me how ridiculous it was for guests to walk up three steps and then down three steps into the dining room when they could have walked directly in, but no one has ever questioned it.' Lapidus, p. 186.

18  Lapidus, p. 166. In an interview Lapidus gave in the 1970s, he stated: 'My client was just as illiterate and uncultured as many of his guests...Most of them got their culture not from school, nor from their travels, but from the movies, the cinema.' Cited in Friedman, 2000.

19  Apparently unaware of the reasons the Fontainebleau aroused the critics' hostility, Lapidus adjusted the exterior of the Eden Roc to win them over: 'I decided I would not curve the new hotel...or use the free forms on the exterior. Perhaps, I thought, the profession and the critics would be kinder if I restrained my desire to use free-flowing forms...but my interiors would still be free-flowing curved spaces.' Lapidus, p. 186.

20  Cited in Friedman, 2005, p. 246.

21  Lapidus, p. 186.

22  Lapidus, pp. 188-89.

23  See Shulman, Allan T., 2009b, 'The Americana Hotel: Inventing a Hemispheric Modernism'. In Shulman, Alan T. (ed.), pp. 320-25. On Interama, see González, Robert, 2009, 'Interama: Visions of a Pan-American City'. In Shulman, Alan T. (ed.), pp. 146-57.

24  Lapidus, p. 221.

25  Plotner, Kevin and Rebecca, 2008, The Fontainebleau, Miami and Las Vegas (Atglen: Schiffer), p. 26.

26  Lapidus, p. 183.

27  Friedman, 2000. Hints at Lapidus's Jewishness had also appeared in 1961, when Time described his Americana-East hotel (renamed the Summit hotel), in New York City, as 'something between Bronx baroque and Mexicali modern'. Cited in Shulman, 2009b, p. 325.

28  Millstein, Gilbert, 1957, 'Architect Deluxe of Miami Beach', New York Times Magazine, 6 January. Cited in Lapidus, p. 195.

29  Hitchcock, Henry-Russell and Philip Johnson, 1966, The International Style (New York and London: W. W. Norton), originally published in 1932 as The International Style: Architecture since 1922), p. 14.

30  Quoted in Friedman, 2000.

31  Lapidus, p. 174.

32  Hitchcock, Henry-Russell, 1952, 'Introduction. In Hitchcock, Henry-Russell and Arthur Drexler (eds), Built in the USA: Post-war America (London: Thames and Hudson), p. 17.

33  Critic Russell Lynes, quoted in Shulman, 2009b, p. 325.

34  Sheldon, Roy and Egmont Arens, 1976, Consumer Engineering: A New Technique for Prosperity (New York: Arno Press [1932]), pp. 2-3.

35  Lapidus, quoted in Shulman, 2009b, p. 325.

36  Lapidus, quoted in Friedman, 2000.

37  Lapidus, pp. 33-34.

38  The description of Hollywood as a 'Metropolis of Make-Believe' was first used in the Hollywood film A Star is Born (1937). Chapman, James, 2003, Cinemas of the World: Film and Society from 1895 to the Present (London: Reaction Books), p. 95. Lapidus, p. 33.

39  Friedman, 2000. Chapman, p. 187.

 

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