Nearly a dozen years ago, executives at Hard Rock International, the chain that’s parlayed hamburgers and pop music into a multibillion-dollar empire, were kicking around ideas with their go-to architects for an expansion of their hometown hotel and casino in Hollywood — not the glam movie town in SoCal, but its humble namesake up the Florida Turnpike from Miami in western Broward County.
That’s when Hard Rock chairman Jim Allen casually dropped a way-out-there suggestion: How about a hotel shaped like an electric guitar?
Architect Steve Peck had to ask Allen to repeat himself, in case he’d misheard. Peck didn’t hesitate to accede once he got over his surprise — even though, as far as he knew, no one had ever built anything like that anywhere in the world.
“Our eyes got wide and we said, ‘In the shape of a guitar?’ ” Peck, associate principal at Las Vegas-based Klai Juba Wald Architecture, recalled asking Allen. “And we said, ‘OK, but that’s going to come at a cost premium.’ We didn’t think an owner would go for it.”
But Allen and Hard Rock’s owners, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, did go for it. And one decade, many renderings, one economic crash followed by an agonizingly slow recovery and $1.5 billion later, Allen and Hard Rock got exactly what they asked for.
On Thursday, the chain will celebrate the formal debut of a nearly all-new, much larger and far glitzier Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino — anchored by an upright, curvaceous 450-foot-tall guitar body sheathed in diaphanously reflective blue-green glass. After dark, the truncated guitar is completed by a “neck” and “strings” composed of potent LED cannons shooting beams of light 30,000 feet into the sky.
The world may not have realized it needed a guitar-shaped hotel, but it’s not hard to imagine the surreal landmark becoming a new icon for Hard Rock and drawing hordes of paying customers like lost sailors to a beacon.
That’s certainly what Hard Rock and the tribe are banking on.
The Hard Rock guitar stands out in the flat South Florida landscape as the tallest object for miles around. On a clear day, Allen said, it’s visible from 15 miles away. The tower presents an equally splendid perspective from within its rooms, which provide panoramic views through floor-to-ceiling glass walls of downtown Fort Lauderdale, the high-rise clumps of Aventura and Sunny Isles Beach and, Oz-like in the distance, downtown Miami.
The other day, a retired Hard Rock executive living in a downtown Miami tower surprised Allen when he called to say he could see the guitar from his balcony.
“If you were in New York City, you would barely see it,” Allen said drily.
Erecting a guitar-shaped building, Allen said, seemed a natural step in the progression of an enterprise that began as a single rock ‘n’ roll theme cafe in London in 1971 and has since evolved into a massive dining, gambling and entertainment consortium that puts music — and the world’s largest collection of musical memorabilia, including many guitars — at its center.
And nothing says “music” as readily as a guitar, Allen noted. That’s why the chain hangs guitars once played by rock and pop music luminaries all over its properties, and why its Vegas casino has a giant leaning neon sign shaped like a guitar. The instrument also has the advantage, it turns out, of having a shape that could be conceived and designed as a building.
“A piano would be harder to build,” Allen said, only half-joking, in an interview earlier this month at the Hard Rock Hollywood’s new live performance theater, a cutting-edge semi-circular auditorium that replaces the resort’s old live-music venue, which was torn down. “A saxophone wouldn’t be structurally sound.”
That’s not to say that turning Allen’s whimsical notion into reality was a straightforward matter.
The building had to be immediately recognizable as a guitar, with the contours of a guitar with a fat bottom, a bridge and strings, and a cutaway with a horn shape where the invisible neck would join the body.
Yet it also had to work structurally, meet South Florida’s stringent windstorm building-code requirements, and — perhaps trickiest of all — attractively and functionally accommodate the mix of suites and rooms that Allen and his team needed to make the hotel work financially.
And that’s not all the job entailed.
The plan called for a total overhaul of the Hollywood property, including demolition of the old live-music venue and its outdated, outdoor festival-style mall, and expansion and a full refurbishing of the casino floor.
The original hotel has been fully updated, and the pool area transformed into a lush, winding tropical lagoon dotted with elaborate Tahiti-inspired pool cabanas and, naturally, traditional but plush Chickee huts built by Seminole tribe members.
The project is the handiwork of a who’s who of interior designers and architects, including the noted Rockwell Group out of New York and Fort Lauderdale’s EDSA, responsible for the landscape design.
Allen said coordinating the different approaches — and egos — of the name designers was not easy. Neither was the complex project staging, which had the essential goal of keeping the casino and hotel operating amid demolition and construction.
“Very few companies have a reason to do this,” Allen said. “This is at the highest level of our industry in terms of design and finishes.”
Allen turned to Klai Juba Wald, original designers of the Hard Rock hotels and casinos in Hollywood and Tampa, as its lead project architect. The firm maintains a team, headed by Peck, dedicated to Hard Rock’s big Florida properties.
Peck recalls that his architectural team’s first stab at the guitar design didn’t go far enough for Allen. When his team came back with a conservatively rectangular tower outfitted with fins and wings to “imply” a guitar, Allen told them he wanted more. He wanted a real guitar, he and Peck both recall — that is, a building whose structural skeleton took on the contours of the instrument.
It did not come cheap. Allen estimates the guitar shape cost 15 percent more than a conventional tower would have cost to design and build, not a negligible amount in a project budget running into the hundreds of millions — but also a bill that an international brand raking in billions of dollars in revenue a year could absorb.
To design the guitar’s structural system, Allen and Peck engaged DeSimone Consulting Engineers, a renowned New York City-based firm with a large Miami office that’s responsible for dozens of high-profile towers in Manhattan, South Florida and around the world. The firm recently completed work on the late star architect Zaha Hadid’s innovative condo tower on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami, which boasts a flowing exterior concrete skeleton.
The Hard Rock guitar project did not pose the novel challenges that Hadid’s One Thousand Museum tower entailed. But it was no simple task, either, Peck said.
First of all, its height was strictly capped at 450 feet because its footprint lies directly west of Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale International Airport and under its flight corridor. Given that cap, the floor slabs had to be relatively thin, between 9 inches and 12 inches, to accommodate as many floors and rooms as possible within an undulating shape that still looked like a properly proportioned guitar. (To fit all the 800 additional rooms and suites Hard Rock wanted for the expansion, the 36-story guitar tower also has an attached curving low-rise hotel wing with swim-out rooms on the ground floor.)
DeSimone took a conventional structural approach: A skeleton of poured, reinforced concrete columns and post-tensioned floor slabs built around an elevator core, with an attached glass skin that forms the building’s exterior in what’s known as a glass curtain wall.
But that’s where the similarity to the usual run of South Florida tower, where every floor is uniform and stacked one upon the other, ends.
In the guitar tower, no two floors are exactly the same, and the columns vary extensively in shape and placement — some are angled inwards, others out, some by as much as 40 degrees. The rooms, too, vary in shape and size by floor and location. That required individual designs and calculations for every floor, a laborious job that also required great precision and careful backchecks by the engineers and designers.
“People are intrigued by the shape of the guitar, but the reality is that structurally, it’s not magic,” Peck said. “But we have to mind how we’re actually going to do it. You just have to pay attention to it.”
To fit in the exact mix of rooms Hard Rock required, Peck said, the architects had to keep shuffling them around in a 3D computer model until it all clicked. The shape of the guitar determined where rooms would fit, but the desired mix also defined the precise curvature. Where the guitar narrows at its “waist,” the tower has ribs of suites with balconies. At the guitar’s cutaway, where penthouse suites are located, is a private rooftop pool.
“We matched the room mix they wanted. We just got it dialed in,” Peck said.
The precise detailing extended to the guitar’s rounded bottom, plainly visible at ground level both from the pool area and inside the hotel lobby and common areas. Upward-curving glass windows in the hotel’s casual restaurant leave visitors no doubt that they are, in fact, lounging inside the body of a guitar.
“We wanted to celebrate the curve of the guitar,” Peck said. “That makes it a part of the experience.”
So precise was the design and construction, by a joint venture of Suffolk Construction and Yates Construction, that only two anchors for the curtain wall had to be redone, according to trade publication Engineering News Record. The project just won recognition from the publication as best specialty construction of the year in the Southeast.
To ensure guests can fully take in the guitar tower from inside the property, the architects created a viewing platform at the end of the vast pool and lagoon area, ready-made for selfies.
To further carry through the hotel’s instrumental impression, Peck said, designers added ribs on the front and back of the tower to represent guitar strings, though they left out other details, such as knobs and pickups, as unnecessary.
“Everybody recognizes a guitar,” Peck said. “But do you want to be literal or sculptural and expressive?”
To create the guitar neck, Hard Rock turned to lighting designer DCL in Boston, which fitted the glass skin with programmable LEDs that not only change colors and patterns but can do animation. The “strings” are equipped with LED cannons whose beams can rotate or shine in programmed patterns as well.
One of the tower’s innovations, though, will be hardly visible at all. It solves a conundrum caused by the tower’s undulating flanks, which make it impossible for window-washers on conventional rigs — which hang straight down — to reach the glass.
So Hard Rock commissioned telescoping rigs, designed in Australia and custom built in Germany and France, that extend and retract as needed for ease of washing, maintaining and repairing the glass. The rigs are concealed at the top of the guitar body when not in use.
So once you’ve designed and built a guitar-shaped tower, how do you follow up?
Peck plays coy.
“Several people have asked me that. My answer is, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s been a heck of a ride. No one will ever do this again.”
Except Allen says the blend of architecture and guitar turned out so well he’s considering doing it again at “four or five” other Hard Rock locations, including possibly Barcelona, Mexico City and Japan.
Allen smiles. The next one, he said, miming an air guitar, will be a guitar building “in the playing position.”
Now top that.