Art & Design

How Alan Faena Breathed Life Into the Buenos Aires Art World

Art & Design

How Alan Faena Breathed Life Into the Buenos Aires Art World

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The Faena Arts Center in the riverside Puerto Madero neighborhood of Buenos Aires, all high ceilings, white walls, and natural light flooding in, is just shy of turning one year old. Most recently, the Havana-based art collective Los Carpinteros occupied the main exhibition space upstairs with a site-specific show comprised of three installations, while the handiwork of Argentinian artist Manuel Ameztoy was on display below. In Ameztoy’s presentation, intricate cutouts on vibrant shades of paper-thin cloth hang, cascading to the floor. The name of the show was “Paraísos desplegados,” or “Pop-Up Paradises.”

The concept of a “pop-up paradise” is a befitting descriptor for the Faena Arts District in the docklands of Puerto Madero. In addition to the Arts Center, which next will put a large-scale mural from Franz Ackermann on display that incorporates the city of Buenos Aires, the Faena Arts District includes the otherworldly Faena Hotel+Universe, largely regarded as one of Philippe Starck’s finest works, as well as a series of residential buildings, including the Sir Norman Foster-designed sustainable, luxury residences The Aleph, recently inaugurated. All the structures are re-appropriated Belle-Epoque buildings situated along the River Plate that had fallen into a state of disrepair.

More than a century ago, the port area was developed for commercial use, but subsequent neglect left it to crumble. In 1997, fashion impresario Alan Faena pinpointed the swath of land he would later develop and began maneuvering to expand into real estate development and hospitality. There, he planned to execute his vision of creating something of a utopian Medici’s village, (as Starck has similarly described it) melding the past of Buenos Aires with the contemporary, perhaps at times a touch futuristic, and constructing establishments dedicated to the arts—architecture, design, fashion, literature, music as well as technology. That land is now the Faena Arts District, the Faena brand’s simple, precise red F’s, flourishing from the middle line, stamped on a series of facades in the area.

“Just recently, there was nothing here,” Alan Faena says, outfitted in his signature all-white look and fedora. He takes a grainy black-and-white framed photograph from the shelf, a snapshot of one of the original edifices that is now part of the Arts District. “Everyone thought I was crazy, that it would be impossible to create a neighborhood here, a hotel,” he says. Faena is seated in a plush, upholstered armchair in living room of the Faena F Suite, one of the most expensive hotel suites in South America. The curtains are red velvet, a Murano glass chandelier glimmers, the master bathroom is wall-to-floor-to-wall marble, and fine artwork, such as oil paintings of iconic Argentine figures, decorate the walls.

Faena’s purchase and development of the district was a precursor to and coincided with the neighborhood’s re-emergence. Today, sleek skyscraper apartment and business buildings reach into the sky, all housing the highest concentration of the most expensive square footage in the city. Upscale restaurants turn tables with views of the water, and all the green spaces are expertly manicured. The obvious wealth and relative immaculateness and quiet of the neighborhood (many people have purchased apartments there as investments but do not occupy them), present a distinctly different face of Buenos Aires, which abuts some of the oldest barrios in the city, such as cobblestoned San Telmo that once upon a time housed the city’s elite.

Of all the new developments in Puerto Madero, the Faena Arts District is the pièce de résistance. The zone is established in Buenos Aires and beyond as a cultural destination for locals and the international elite. The first piece of the district to appear was the red brick hotel, initially perceived as a hushed place of intrigue, out of reach for most, where photos were prohibited and touring rockstars bunked up when playing Buenos Aires. For the city’s stylish set and the well off, the hotel is now the place to see and be seen, with outdoor parties in the warmer months surrounding the coronated pool, while just inside at the hotel’s Library Lounge, softly lit and furnished with dark woods and rich leather fittings, some of the top local and visiting international DJs, as well as bands, are booked to play. While tabs at one of the hotel’s two restaurants or lounge might price out many locals, a fair percentage of the reservations in the hotel’s two restaurants come from porteños (those from Buenos Aires) as well. One weeknight evening in El Bistro, the hotel’s Narnia-like, all white restaurant, the walls decorated with unicorn heads, an 11-year-old Argentinian girl was the center of attention at one of the tables; she had selected the restaurant as the site for her intimate birthday dinner with family.

The hotel, Faena’s first completed property, is what people experienced first. Since the onset, Faena says he had the vision of an entire district in mind and was building toward that. The Faena Arts Center opened in September 2011, the inaugural exhibit a massive, multicolored hanging plaything of an installation from Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto. It attracted 75,000 visitors in the first three months it was open. The Arts Center, which charges the equivalent of about US $5.50 for admittance presents exhibitions from renowned international and local contemporary artists, everything to be found only in that space. The Aleph residences, the name drawn from a Jorge Luis Borges tale of the same title, is slated to be inaugurated in September.

Faena also is looking beyond Buenos Aires and eyeing international locations. The next district development is slated for Miami, Latin America’s favored U.S.-based outpost for partying and shopping. There also has been discussion about properties to come in Argentinian Patagonia’s Bariloche and the luxury leisure destination Punta del Este, Uruguay where Argentinians flock to summer, though a press rep was “unable to communicate details for additional developments.” Faena also is tight-lipped about the projects. “He prefers to speak more about what does than what he is going to do,” says Faena’s press manager Florencia Binder.  A dedication to the arts will always be a priority with his works, though, and an homage to his native Buenos Aires, the inspiration for it all, will be incorporated as he moves internationally, for example the idea of offering the Faena’s sultry tango dinner show Rojo Tango at other hotel locations.

“Alan encouraged culture, blurring the edges between visual art, leisure, community, residential, hotels,” Foster says in a presentation about the residences his firm designed for Faena. Starck has spoken glowingly of Faena on video, referring to Faena as “the prototype of the businessman of the future.” Faena has not asked Starck for an explanation of that statement, but he surmises when asked. “Doing business is not what brought me here. What brought me here was my vision, and because of my vision I did business.” Whatever that concept of the prototypical businessman Starck envisages develops into is currently just conjecture, but for now at least, Faena is headed to Miami with his grand plans.