Las Vegas’ Incredible Shrinking Tower
This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.
The unfinished architecture of the world comes in many varieties, with many reasons for their halted development.
Some buildings, like cathedrals, remain unfinished, to some eyes, because they can take centuries to build. Some buildings are never completed because, whether due to poor judgment or the hubris of their builders, they’re simply bad ideas. And some buildings are never finished because they can’t be.
A recent high-profile example of architecture unable to be completed is the Harmon tower in Las Vegas, Nevada. It’s a project that was quite literally cut down in its prime, halved in height on its way up, deemed a failure before its completion and doomed to demolition.
The Harmon was originally planned to be a combination hotel, spa and condo complex, a 49-story tower to be built, along with a handful of other high-end projects, in a tight cluster on the Las Vegas Strip.
Known as CityCenter, this development was planned as a “city within a city” featuring a 6-building mix of the typical Las Vegas casino, entertainment and hotel projects along with residences and a luxury shopping mall all arranged in a dense, walkable and aspirationally “urban” form.
One of the hotels alone would have more than 4,000 rooms. Seven of the world’s most famous architecture were hired on to design the mini-skyline: Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects; Rafael Vinoly Architects; Kohn Pederson Fox; Murphy/Jahn; Studio Daniel Libeskind with Rockwell Group; and Foster + Partners.
Developed by the casino resort operators MGM Mirage along with Dubai World, the 67-acre, 18 million square foot, $8.5 billion project was initiated in 2004. At the time, it was being called the largest private real estate development in U.S. history. And, as ambitious as its bombastic scale, the project was planned to be finished in 2009, a concept-to-completion timeline of just five years.
Looking back, that timing might seem to have doomed the project, but the recession that hit Las Vegas especially hard right around the time of the planned completion had very little effect on CityCenter, is could only be partly blamed for what happened to the Harmon. Ultimately, it wasn’t economic stability that halted the Harmon, but actual stability.
The Harmon, proposed as an oval shaped tower with roughly 400 rooms and 200 condos on its 49 floors, was designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning British architect Norman Foster’s firm, Foster + Partners, whose notable projects include the building known as the Gherkin in London and Hearst Tower in New York.
Construction began in 2007. But in July 2008, an engineer working on the project discovered that reinforcing bars had been improperly installed in much of the partially-built structure, despite repeated inspections. In some places the rebar was missing entirely.
These rebar problems forced the project to halt after about half of its floors had been built. The problems were traced to misaligned rebar in the concrete of about 15 floors, according to a January 2009 article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and blamed on a subcontractor, Pacific Coast Steel, who subsequently blamed the problem on another subcontracted structural engineer.
The developers decided to try to salvage the building by reducing its scope from 49 floors to just 28. The 200 or so condos originally planned were scrapped. “The incredible shrinking Harmon seems unfortunately fated to look like a stubby, squashed stepchild next to its soaring CityCenter siblings,” wrote the Las Vegas Sun in February 2009. In December 2009, the CityCenter complex held its grand opening, the incomplete Harmon tower its one asterisk.
“Delivering CityCenter in just five years required a full throttle, fast-track process,” noted a promotional report on the project from 2009—a celebration of the project’s ambition, but also a subtle admission of the root of the Harmon’s problem.
The shortened version of the project was soon stalled, and construction on the project stopped altogether. It topped out at 26 floors. Nearly $300 million had already been spent. Litigation began in 2010. Tutor Perini, the project’s general contractor, sued the developers for $492 million in unpaid construction work. A long battle between the contractor and the developer ensued.
Tutor Perini issued a statement in July 2011 claiming the developers were simply trying to kill the project—convenient, given how the recession dramatically impacted the Las Vegas economy and slashed demand for hotel rooms and condos—rather than investing in fixing it.
“The Harmon does not present any current life safety issues even for a ‘code-level’ seismic event,” Tutor Perini officials said in a statement. “The truth is, however, that MGM does not want the Harmon to be repaired because the Harmon is worth more dead than alive to MGM.”
MGM fired back. “Perini is understandably attempting to deflect attention from what it already has admitted: As general contractor, it failed to properly construct the Harmon. No amount of misdirection can change that fact… Perini’s representation of the facts is as poor as its construction at the Harmon.”
All the while, the Harmon tower sat half-finished, prominently anchoring CityCenter on the Las Vegas Strip, its façade covered in mirrored blue glass, its interior empty. In an attempt to get some use out of it, the building was draped with billboards.
The legal battle over its fate dragged for years. After some back-and-forth, in April 2014 a Clark County judge approved MGM’s request to tear the building down. Demolition began later that year. In December 2014, MGM Mirage and Tutor Perini came to a settlement over the project, with MGM paying $153 million to the general contractor.
The half-finished Harmon tower underwent a slow-motion demolition, very unlike the showpiece implosions that are typical when older Las Vegas casinos are replaced with newer, flashier versions.
These events—more than a dozen of which have taken place in recent years—become part of the life of the building in a way, their showy destruction cementing them in the memory.
The Harmon tower, because of its close proximity to the other elements of CityCenter, would not go out in a flash.
Instead, the building had to be demolished floor-by-floor. Over many months, the project gradually erased itself from the top down—a sheepish un-building that could hardly be noticed without a time-lapse camera. By late 2015, the building had all but disappeared, leaving only its foundation behind.
For years, it sat half-completed in full view of the millions of tourists roaming the Las Vegas Strip, a 26-story reminder that big plans sometimes fail. Now it’s just an empty place with an uncertain future and a past many are willing to forget.