Beautiful Disasters: Foster + Partners’ Doomed Harmon Hotel Encapsulates Mixed Fortunes for Las Vegas Architects

The Angry Architect The Angry Architect

“Gambling: The sure way of getting nothing for something.”

Though he said it 100 years ago, Wilson Mizner could have been talking about the very recent misfortune surrounding the gargantuan CityCenter development on The Strip in Las Vegas. After years of litigious battles – a convoluted blame game between MGM Mirage, the Perini Building Company, and Foster & Partners, among others – the Harmon Hotel was approved for demolition earlier this month.

Image of CityCenter via JanelPollard

Image of The Harmon via Just My Travelling

The sweeping blue skin of reflective glass has been utilized as the country’s most expensive billboard since 2009, when major structural defects were discovered – a revised proposal for the tower saw it scythed down from 49 stories to just 28, irrevocably altering the intended silhouette and erasing the glittering penthouse apartments originally planned for the building’s summit. In the end though, even the stunted version of The Harmon was deemed untenable, and the building will be dismantled floor by floor at a cost of $11.5 million.

Image of The Harmon via Building Failures

Even by Las Vegas standards, that’s a hefty bet to lose, though this number pales in comparison to the total bill – a combination of legal fees and the original cost of construction that brings the tally to a staggering $400 million. Cue the long-running dispute between owner MGM and general contractor Perini Building: Craig Shaw, Perini’s President, has stated that design errors – drawn up by Foster & Partners – meant the steel members “could not be installed as drawn.”

Image of CityCenter by trbimg

Not withstanding the ongoing legal battle, let’s be clear – Norman Foster is almost certainly NOT to blame here, for two reasons. Assuming Mr. Shaw is right, wouldn’t the obvious response be to communicate the problem to the architect in order for a solution to be found? Instead, subcontractor Pacific Coast Steel plowed on with the installation, regardless of the pending structural (and financial) disaster. Secondly, the steelwork in question was inspected no less than 62 TIMES on consecutive days by California-based Converse Consultants, who incorrectly claimed that the structural system was sound. If anyone was gambling recklessly in Sin City, it wasn’t the architects.

The only thing the Foster & Partners could be accused of is their complicity in the corporate orgy of Starchitecture that is the CityCenter development. The faceless blue glass of the Harmon Hotel is in keeping with the cool, glossy style seen across the complex, standing alongside further condos designed by JAHN, Cesar Pelli, Rafael Viñoly and Kohn Pedersen Fox. The cocktail of big name designers and extraordinary expenditure has resulted in a truly mixed bag of architectural success and failure, which is symptomatic of the profession’s love-hate relationship with this city.

Image of Veer Towers via srfventures

Image of The Mandarin Oriental via wikipedia

Falling into the “success” category comes the Veer towers by Helmut Jahn, a pair of leaning condominiums that are unapologetic in their exuberance: each golden façade glistens in the sunlight and is strikingly illuminated after sundown. In contrast, Pelli’s Aria and KPF’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel are slick but essentially forgettable glazed slabs of high luxury. Rafael Viñoly’s Vdara hotel, on the other hand, is most famous for its ability to burn people with its concave, reflective surface, Walkie-Talkie style … despite its slick detailing, this probably relegates it to the “failure” column.

Image of Aria Hotel via Prnasia

Image of Vdara Hotel via RVAPC

Finally, the star-spangled development is rounded off with Daniel Libeskind’s formulaic Crystals — an über high-end shopping mall fronting The Strip. No surprises here: Libeskind continues to gain commissions when a client desires the architectural equivalent of a table decoration for their development, and we are now faced with the bizarre realization that the Imperial War Museum in Manchester possesses precisely the same style of deconstructivism as a shopping mall in Las Vegas.

Image of Crystals Mall via Daniel Libeskind

Despite their extraordinary specifications, and some admirable qualities — every hotel in the complex possesses the LEED Gold Certificate, for example – one cannot help but feel strangely underwhelmed by the development as a whole. While undeniably seductive in their luxury, CityCenter does not possess the kitsch heart of the city’s historic resorts that, for all their flaws, make Vegas a joyful architectural anomaly. For this reason, Foster’s Harmon Hotel will be no great loss to the region’s plethora of showboat structures.

Image of Harmon Hotel by trbimg

Ironically, the court ruling for demolition appears to be a blessing in disguise for MGM – the structural defects debacle occurred in perfect synchronization with the economic downturn of 2008-2009, making the sale of top-end apartments more difficult than at any other time in the city’s history. Whether this will mean a change in direction for the site once it has been cleared remains to be seen – Las Vegas continues to depend on the extravagant expenditure of wealth for entertainment, which means tourism and leisure will always be its go-to for programmatic typologies. Once the demolition is complete and the dust has settled across The Strip, it is safe to say that Lord Foster’s integrity will remain intact. He can write this particular fiasco off and continue on, knowing that poor communication by others, falsified inspections, and poor timing were to blame: luck was definitely not with the architect on this occasion. Ultimately, Norman gambled and lost in Vegas … he wasn’t the first, and he certainly won’t be the last.

Yours excessively,

The Angry Architect

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