When the Norman Foster-designed Harmon Hotel broke ground in 2006, the mixed-use Las Vegas complex was set to include 49 stories, 400 hotel rooms, and 207 luxury residences, with a long list of amenities, among them a Mr. Chow's restaurant and Frederick Fekkai salon. It was to be the largest of Foster + Partner's U.S. projects up to that point, and the shining blue-glass setpiece of MGM Resort International's CityCenter complex, a 16,700,000-square-foot $8.5B development that, in a too-perfect example of booming pre-recession development, was boasted as the largest privately funded construction project in U.S. history. How the Harmon ended up slated for demolition, after sitting half-built on the Vegas Stip for nearly six years, is a story of bungled construction and tangled litigation for the ages.
In 2008, two years into the construction of the Harmon, it was discovered that San Diego-based subcontractor Pacific Coast Steel had improperly installed the reinforcing steel on floors 6 through 20. To make matters worse—and the ensuing litigation that much thornier—another subcontractor, the Monrovia, Calif.-based Converse Consultants, had falsified 62 daily inspection reports between March and July of 2008 stating that things were structurally sound.
With the flaws discovered before all 49 stories were built, which would've presented a greater risk of collapse, MGM temporarily shut down the project and in 2009, around the time that much of CityCenter opened for business, opted for a redesign that would cap it at 28 floors.
Pacific Coast Steel ended up paying $14,105 in Contractor's Board fines after an investigation discovered "workmanship" issues, reaching a settlement in which they didn't have to admit fault. Converse was given a temporary ban on practicing in Nevada, and its inspectors had their qualifications suspended or revoked. But with who owes $191M in unpaid CityCenter construction invoices still being fought out in court between MGM and general contractor Tutor Perini Building Co., there has naturally been quite a bit of finger-pointing and fault-finding between the two. Finding fault with MGM and Foster + Partners, Perini claimed that "portions of the structural drawings, as designed and permitted, contained elements of reinforcing steel that could not be installed as drawn."
Meanwhile, MGM went forward with corrective work and a redesign that saw them getting rid of the hotel-topping condominiums, about half of which had sold. According to Architectural Record, this spared about $600M in construction costs, and another $200M in fit-out expenses, while Foster's half-built design lingered on as what the New York Times once called "the most expensive billboard in the country." (A far cry from the kind of advertising that, say, Rem Koolhaas engages in.) The total construction cost for this incomplete wonder, which has been hung with posters for Cirque Du Soleil performances at other CityCenter hotels? $279M.
MGM changed its tune in 2010, announcing plans to for the demolition of the structure that would have to be delayed due to the ongoing litigation. CityCenter CEO Bobby Baldwin lamented the Harmon as "one of the most beautifully designed buildings ever," apparently crestfallen that "the most sophisticated of all the architects ended up being involved in a building that was our biggest disappointment." To be sure, a half-sized Foster building would've been it's own kind of disappointment, one that according to an MGM spokesperson, would've taken over a year of testing and redesigns to come up with a new plan for the hotel, and another two to three to build, all in an atmosphere where the need for new hotel rooms in Vegas had fallen short of pre-recession projections. Baldwin's primary frustration seemed to be that "Right now, I have a building I can't do anything with."
On April 22, MGM received the received the final bit of court approval necessary to do something with the Harmon. That something will involve a floor-by-floor dismantling that is expected to cost $11.5M, what MGM spokesman Gordon Absher called the result of "expert advice" on "the fastest and safest way to resolve public safety concerns created by the structural defect issues at the Harmon." It's not quite on par with the dramatic implosions received by other Vegas hotels (one YouTuber ranks the Landmark's, which was featured in the movie Mars Attacks, as the greatest of all time) but then again, the Harmon never got to serve a single complimentary breakfast.
Though Foster's renovation plans for the New York Public Library were widely criticized, the period leading up to their recent rejection was mercifully short compared to that of the Harmon. Better if it had gone the way of NYC's New Globe Theater or Seattle's Civic Square tower, which have been left in the planning stage for years and caught up in development wrangling, respectively, but still appear rather hopefully on Foster + Partner's list of U.S. projects. Naturally, the Harmon has been removed from the list, but the real thing won't be removed until this summer. MGM has yet to announce what will replace it in the 76-acre master plan.
· Court Approves Demolition of Foster + Partners' Harmon Hotel in Vegas [Architectural Record]
· All Norman Foster coverage [Curbed National]
Photo at right by Nick_Nick/Shutterstock