PRINT February 1993

Glamour Wounds

The Fountainebleau Hotel

I don’t care if it’s Baroque or Brooklyn, just get me plenty of glamour and make sure it screams luxury!
—a client of Morris Lapidus

TO GET ANY POWER at all, you have to go to the source of the wound. So I recently went back to Miami Beach, to “one of those ice-cream-colored Hebrew hang-outs with a French name” so charmingly described by Truman Capote, my big sister in glamour woundedness. In 1953 genius architect Morris Lapidus designed the Fountainebleau to be the most pretentious hotel in the world. Trained as an actor and set designer as well as a nice Jewish beaux-arts architect, Lapidus pounced on this, his first hotel, as the occasion to “test all the theories I had developed to please people.” Having made a fateful detour in the ’30s and ’40s as a store designer, Lapidus knew how to create a merchandising environment to facilitate the theatricality of buying things, to make every customer feel special no matter how schlumpy. He utilized his “moth theory” of display, by which the consumer gravitates toward products when they are brightly lit. He implanted his signature amoeboid “woggles”—sweeping walls that eliminated showcases and literally pushed the consumers’ eye and purse toward plush mirrored display areas where they could palpate and pose with the merchandise. “Beanpoles” and mirrored dividers framed pseudopersonal shopping vignettes throughout the open-feeling space. Columns provided the illusion of support, and appeared to shoot through the ceiling into electric twinkles. The whole place seemed to float in zesty structural non-integrity, psychotically embellished with classical ornaments, which, as Lapidus remarked, were “meaningless but . . . offered the customers something to look at.”

Wallowing in theatricality and mushed-up historical references, Lapidus’ glorification of the consumer fully flowered in the Fountainebleau, where he demonstrated every lesson from Las Vegas that Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour would so brilliantly point out 19 years later. Souped up with curving lines signifying dynamism, the hotelhas strategic moments of wasted space which do nothing but bolster each guest’s private fantasm of regal self-presentation. Lapidus generously provided a dramatic entrance to the dining room, where each guest must go up and then down a short flight of steps, softly lit by pink floodlights. In the lobby, a Piranesi wall mural, itself an impossible space, sets off one of Lapidus’ signature stairways to nowhere, the emblematic setting for a Miami vacation, complete with vague references to classy Europeanness and “culture.” Sickly enough, during my recent trip to the hotel, the “Piranesi” was gone, replaced by some kind of floral Muzak wallpaper chosen by a Hilton decorator on an automatistic mission to “update” the place. Shame on you, Hilton! Nevertheless, the place facilitates unspoken fantasies that you are Grace Kelly gliding through a tropical movie set, when in fact you may look more like Alice Kramden.

Lapidus’ pseudo-European dreamscape came true in recent years, and the hotel is packed by authentic “Eurotrash.” I went there expecting to find it filled with ostentatious JAPpy families like I remembered it, complete with whiny kids splashing around and being annoying in the pool. In fact, it was serene and kid-free. The pool was a fabulously executed oasis concept, a woggle-shaped lagoon garnished with a large nonstop waterfall. All the ladies had designer or faux-designer beach bags. As I checked out their reading material, I was shocked to discover that they were mostly German! What’s with the cultural subtext of Germans and Jews bonding over tropical kitsch? The Germans just can’t seem to stay away from the Jewish energy, even when it’s trying to be French. This oasis started signifying to me as a gilt-trip for post-Holocaust fantasms dislocated yet somehow pacified by frequent feedings at Chez Bon Bon (the aptly named coffee shop) and the incongruous presence of prosperous Latin Americans.

The most striking thing about this vacation was that it inverted my whole economy of scarcity as a consumer: the Fontainebleau effectively realizes the fantasy of each guest’s total potency to consume with total access to enjoyment uninhibited by taste, money, or expanding waistline. Unlike the fierce leisure world of Capote’s Answered Prayers, where diners are carefully ranked by ressentiment personified in the form of judgmental maitre d’s, everyone at the Fountainebleau is treated as a Totally Adequate Consumer. The hotel is an infantile fantasy womb in which his or her majesty the Guest is always adorable, no matter how overly accessorized. I want to go back. My room was a beautiful Bamboo French Provincial.

Lapidus shifted the equilibrium of architecture from the autistically self-referential purity of the high-Modernist “duck” (Venturi’s term) toward the shameless user-friendliness of the “decorated shed.” He made glorious buildings that did not pretend to be more “pure” than their occupants. “Creating,” in his own words, “the style that was neither period nor modern,” he upset the equilibrium of high-snobby architecture. He was shunned by “serious” architects, who misread this departure from the law of structural integrity as error, as an excessive and willful lack of taste, rather than as the new law, the fertile deviation from the regime of death, the regime of “taste,” the “deviation” that would speak to Pop and post-Pop architects and artists decades later. Ilya Prigogine, Isabelle Stengers, and Michel Serres all describe the physics of life coming from “the amplification of a fluctuation” from equilibrium. Equilibrium is “death.” It is this very amplified deviation from the law, from taste—this tacky turbulence represented by Lapidus and Pop—that is the very means by which the “tradition” can survive.

When I was a kid, we went to Miami twice a year to visit my grandparents, who migrated there in pack formation with friends and kin from the Bronx. My family didn’t stay at the Fountainebleau, however. We stayed at the Hotel Singapore on the lower end of Collins Avenue, where they had live parrots in the lobby to corroborate the tropical ambience. We also stayed at the Colonial Inn, where I was constitutionally traumatized by a poolside child fashion show to which my mom submitted me and my two younger brothers. My two brothers won of course—wearing matching Nehru-collared jackets and white pants—child dress-alikes always having an unfair advantage in cuteness. I was humiliated by this defeat, by two little boys who were in fact indifferent to fashion. To make things more pathetic, they gave me the stuffed animal they won, no doubt because I was crying. My actual memories of the time are dislocated onto a photo of me at the pool area of the hotel wearing a short chemise-shaped dress, half creme and half black with hot pink bows on the faux pockets and a sporty hot-pink scarf tied à la Rhoda Morgenstern around my head. At night we would take walks to see the lobbies of the ritzier hotels like the Eden Roc, the Doral, and the Jewish grande dame of Collins Avenue, the Fountainebleau. To me, this was the most glamorous thing I could imagine. I thought this was the Ultimate (probably because we didn’t stay there). Like most kids I felt that my parents never got it quite right, I was always left puzzled, holding the bag between the way I thought things should be and the way they actually are, which is probably why I became a writer.

Rhonda Lieberman teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. All quotations about Lapidus and the Fontainebleau from Martina Duttman and Friederike Schneider, eds., Morris Lapidus: Architect of the American Dream, Basel, Berlin, and Boston: Birkhauser Verlag, 1992.