Memoirs of Miami’s modern impresario Alan Faena
A new book published by Rizzoli documents the rise and rise of the Argentinian visionary
It could be seen as a little forthright to write a memoir in your mid-50s. But Alan Faena gets away with it. The fashion designer turned real estate extraordinaire has packed more into his 55 years than most could in multiple lifetimes. In Alchemy & Creative Collaboration, Faena lavishly documents his journey from obscurity, to a galvanising international force in architecture, art, and hospitality, known for development work in his native Argentina, and his billion-dollar district in Miami.
To understand Faena is to understand his upbringing. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Faena was born, the 1960s arrived late. With mere glimpses of counter-culture and protest in the second half of the decade, those who participated in cultural and political change were forced underground or into exile by the mid-1970s. Born in 1963, Faena was a teenager when local creative youth first began to exercise their newfound freedom. He describes the early fashion shows of Via Vai (the label he founded aged 19), as ‘a chance for an entire generation to experiment with self-expression, quite often for the first time in their lives.’ His clothing became, in his words, ‘its own social movement’.
As Faena’s narrative unravels, it becomes increasingly memoir-worthy. Faena’s romance with Via Vai co-founder Paula Cahen d’Anvers is movie-love fated. When they separated, he sold the label because of a broken heart, despite its prestige as the first Argentinian fashion brand to garner significant international acclaim. ‘The clothes were just one ingredient to reach across all aspects of art and culture,’ he writes, hinting of his interdisciplinary ascension, just around the corner.
Not before a filmic, plot-twist stint as a gardener, however, to which a significant, 30-page chapter of the book is dedicated, suggesting its importance. In 1995, he moved to the Uruguayan coastline of Punta del Este, to grow roses by the sea in a remote and abandoned homestead owned by his fathers’ business associate. Of course, people thought he was crazy. ‘But that’s always been the case when I start a new chapter or project: most people immediately write off my dream as an impossibility; many ready to quash the idea as too risky or doomed to fail,’ Faena explains. ‘But I don’t dream small.’
After two-and-a-half years living in the curative gardens of Tierra Santa, Faena felt compelled to exercise his creative will in the ‘real world’ again, taking all he had learnt on Uruguay’s powerful shores, and reinvesting it in public expressions.
His mind moved towards the hospitality industry. With an idea to create a multifunctional cultural destination, he travelled back to Buenos Aires with one designer in mind to make his ambitions a reality: Philippe Starck, who Faena describes as ‘practically king of the world at the time’. Faena ‘courted’ him long-distance for the best part of a year, with photo-postcards of Buenos Aires, writing on each, ‘Philippe, Argentina needs you’. By 1999, with little more than ‘vision and sincerity’ it paid off, and the somewhat unlikely duo started work together, reinvigorating the then-derelict dockland of Puerto Madero. ‘This new space, I knew, would encompass all of my passions: design, culture, technology, art, architecture, food, taste, dancing, music, meaning, life. From day one, I saw it as building another paradise, just as I had done with Tierra Santa.’
Success after well-documented success followed. The Starck-designed Faena Hotel opened in October 2004; the waterfront Faena Art Center opened in 2001 inside one of Argentina’s famed flour mills; the Norman Foster-designed Faena Aleph Residences completed in January 2013 (marking Foster + Partners’ first project in Latin America). In all, the Faena District, (estimated to be a $200 million development), is the most valuable real estate in Buenos Aires.
Next stop, Miami; the US gateway to the dance, liason and intrigue of Latin America. ‘For many of us in Latin America, Miami is also seen as the gateway to the United States,’ Faena writes. He first visited as a child, and fell in love with its unique cultural codes, its glamour, and its comfortable familiarity: the blue horizon is the same as the one he sees from his stretch of beach in Punta del Esta.
Faena’s first Miami moment was the redevelopment of The Saxony (pictured above) in a then-forgotten area of Mid-Beach, which he would transform into a ‘place charged with energy and physical beauty’.
‘Faena Miami Beach is a place of art, of music, of theatre, of dance and romance, of food and wine, of lovers’ kisses and children’s laugher, of purpose, of poetry.’ – Baz Luhrmann
Predictably, the Faena Hotel was just the start of Faena’s Miami macrocosm. With the help of his newfound ‘collaboratory’ (a dream-team of the ‘world’s greatest minds’), Faena had his heart set on creating a Puerto Madero-esque Faena District in Mid-Beach. To realise this cinematic vision, he enlisted not just architects and designers, but masters of a diversity of creative disciplines. Film director Baz Luhrmann, costume designer Catherine Martin, artist Juan Gatti, Antwerp-based collective Studio Job, composer Michael Nyman.
Everything came together in a flurry between 2014 and 2016, with the symphonic opening of a six-block project, comprising the 169-room Faena hotel, a 50-room hotel, Casa Claridge’s, three condominium buildings, a cultural centre and retail complex designed by Rem Koolhaas. Decorating this new creative universe, and earning himself the moniker ‘the new Medici’, Faena commissioned new work from the likes of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Los Carpinteros.
Designing with artists, not just developers, was central to the Faena district’s reception as a friendly neighbourhood, rather than being intrusive, Faena explains. ‘We didn’t build like disinterested machines; we built as humans’. As Sir Norman Foster says: ‘Alan Faena insists on a cultural anchor for his projects. Not just culture in the visual arts, but in blurring the edges between arts and leisure, between the resident community and the visiting energy of the hotel.’ Proving its homely quality, Faena has chosen it as his main base.
Despite this, Faena District in Miami is far from the entrepreneur’s swan song. ‘These days I find myself spending more time in Manhattan,’ he muses in the epilogue. Knowing the indefatigable Faena, we envisage there might be a future memoir in the works. §