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Farewell, Harmon Hotel, the architectural gem that could have been

CITYCENTER'S MOST FAMOUS ARCHITECT is also the least known. His name is Sir Norman Foster -- a jet-setting starchitect responsible for iconic, beloved buildings worldwide such as the Reichstag New German Parliament and Swiss Re skyscraper, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters and Commerzbank Tower. He is chairman of London-based Foster + Partners, an architecture, design and planning firm with offices in Abu Dhabi and Madrid, New York and Hong Kong.

Stormin' Norman, as the British press calls him, has won every major prize the architecture world offers, including the Pritzker Prize, the industry's equivalent of the Nobel. The Harmon Hotel at CityCenter was to be his Las Vegas debut; it would be just the third Foster building west of the Mississippi. (Foster's most celebrated work is scattered across Europe and Asia).

CityCenter owner MGM Resorts International had high hopes for Foster's creation; it gave his oval blue-glass checkered building design prominent Strip-front placement. The architectural community was giddy with excitement over Foster's arrival.

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"Architecturally, having a Foster building in town is a great thing," says David Baird, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Architecture. "It's only three blocks from the school of architecture. Most students have to travel a day and a half to see a building like that. It brings attention to the city."

[Read Desert Companion's coverage of the valley's coolest buildings and hottest architects working in Las Vegas]

Harmon had it all: pedigree, a sleek design, and great location. The Light Group, purveyors of trendy nightclubs and chic restaurants, had been tapped to create "a place to be and be seen" image at Harmon that catered to "a young and wealthy demographic," according to MGM press hype. Yet, chances of completion of the high-rise are now nil. Today it sits dormant with a wrap sign for CityCenter's "Viva Elvis" show across its façade. It's a billboard rather than an architectural landmark.

What went wrong? Part of the problem is a bitter, ongoing lawsuit between MGM and its general contractor Perini Building Company over construction defects, among other things. Harmon has "substantial defective construction" resulting in "hundreds of millions of dollars in estimated damages," MGM's lawsuit claims. Perini claims Harmon's problems are fixable. The Harmon is a smokescreen to avoid paying the final construction tab, Perini President and CEO Craig Shaw says.

[Will the Harmon Hotel be imploded? Listen to a discussion about its uncertain future on "KNPR's State of Nevada"]

Lawsuits and finger-pointing aside, Harmon remains an ugly stepsister to an otherwise beautiful family. The building was nearly lopped in half in January 2009 as part of a cost-cutting measure. CityCenter broke ground during the real estate boom in 2006 but finished during a recession. As the economy tanked, MGM responded by trimming 207 high-end residential units from the Harmon, of which less than half had sold. It reduced the building size from 47 to 27 stories. The move saved $600 million in construction costs, and deferred another $200 million in expenses needed to finish the interior.

"It's clearly stumpy, and that's not good on the most prominent site in the complex," says Alan Hess, author of "Viva Las Vegas: After Hours Architecture." "Without a tenant, it also creates a black hole along the Strip sidewalk, with no activity, shops, entries at that point on the link between the Bellagio and CityCenter."

[Read about an architectural marvel that succeeded: The elegant Colorado River Bridge]

Foster reportedly isn't happy with the Harmon either. A Foster spokesperson declined to comment for this story; Harmon is no longer listed on Foster + Partners' website. Foster was also a no-show at the CityCenter opening festivities on Dec. 16. He was the only major architect who didn't appear. It marks a major change of direction for the architect who was "thrilled to be designing a new hotel concept," according to a Foster quote included in CityCenter's original press material.

Indeed, Foster once figured prominently in CityCenter marketing and promotional material. MGM eagerly touted his project involvement as ushering in a new level of architectural sophistication in Las Vegas. Harmon anchors the northernmost edge of the development. Its presence was meant as eye-candy to lure visitors inside CityCenter. Harmon's fate now disrupts the property's functional and aesthetic continuity. It's in hotel limbo.

"I think that like any good master-plan, when you remove a piece, you are in danger of setting off an imbalance that has repercussions," UNLV's Baird says. "It reduces the density of the development, which is one of the goals of CityCenter."

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