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Aug / Sep 2012
Art and Soul

Writer: Michael Tannenbaum

Syrian-Argentine Alan Faena wears many hats: fashion, real estate development and hostelry. But the hat you’ll always see wearing is white, signature style. Meet the man behind Buenos Aires’ Faena Art District.


Bitterly cold days in Buenos Aires can seem a minor injustice. Call it cognitive dissonance fabricated by brochures, but once or twice, you’ll wish that those waterfront gusts could loft you away to any as-advertised place in the universe. Should you happen to possess true telekinetic luck however, landing nearby at the Faena Hotel would be, in a word, tantamount.

“Keep Calm And Carry On” advises a windowpane on a door near Alan Faena’s office. Thank you, kindly! I sit there sipping the coffee I’ve been served by his affectionate staff, glancing over my notes. I’m 23 years old, North American, aspiring to enlightenment ahead of fortune - hence a writer, essentially broke. I don’t like coffee. I am about to meet a very wealthy and influential man and I feel as though I am a Seinfeld character dialled up to say something egregiously headshaking. I’ve never been happier. Touché, Mr. Faena. Serenity now.

“This is a world of big talkers,” says Faena, 48, sharply dressed beneath his signature white hat, “but there aren’t a lot of people who can deliver. Everything seems very simple in retrospect, but in the beginning it was quite complicated.”

At 18, with nothing to lose, Alan Faena took a pivotal gamble. Raised in Buenos Aires by a family of Syrian-Argentine textile manufacturers, the dry ordeal of formal education had always stifled his better instincts. Forgoing university and chasing love, he took off to Saint-Tropez in France, where he joined forces with then-girlfriend Paula Cahan d’Anvers. Together, they developed Vía Vai, a casualwear design label and boutique that quickly became an international smash.

Stone credibility, ample fame but not the ineffable glory Faena was after. Only 36 years old, he sold Vía Vai in 2000 and bunkered down to recollect in Uruguay’s marvellous Punta del Este. “Economic crises can cut both ways,” says Faena of the 2001-2002 crash that paralysed the best of Buenos Aires’ developers. “At that moment, all of this was instinct, all of it dream. Everyone in real estate was holding back but I pushed ahead because I again felt I had nothing to lose. I used the moment.”

Situated at the east end of Puerto Madero, the Faena Art District comprises six stunning works of architecture, designed by a roster of world-class talent. What began in 2004 with France’s visionary Philippe Starck - Faena’s first crucial adherent to the dream come true - now extends with the coming completion of The Aleph, a shimmering residential complex designed by the legendary Sir Norman Foster.

“When we decided to make a new building from scratch, I considered that Norman Foster was the new ethos of architecture,” says Faena, referring to the sleek optimisation and sustainability of Foster+Partners’ designs. “I wanted him to be a part of our whole neighbourhood, to reinvent the traditional Argentine home and bring something new to our city.”

The building’s name is inspired in part by the mind-bending short story of Jorge Luis Borges. In this tale, a lovesick Borges calls annually on the home of his deceased obsession, paying his respects in the company of her egomaniacal poet cousin. Concealed in the cellar of this Buenos Aires home, the cousin claims, is the Aleph, “the only place on earth where all places are - seen from every angle, each standing clear, with no blending or confusion.”

“For us, The Aleph is a summary of everything that has happened in our district. It’s the summary of architecture, design, culture, art, people, experience, flavours. All of that, in one way, is The Aleph,” Faena says.

The building will contain 83 residences with exquisite and spacious interior décor, aimed at redefining urban living while fully integrating the technology, art, cultural life and the natural environs of the Faena Art District.

I press Faena further for an elaboration on the ties between nature, love and human instinct. These, I suspect (with a dash of Borges’ jealous, unsparing madness) are what guide the world’s benevolent kings.

“For me, everything is about creation and expression,” Faena confides. “Everything was built on that instinct to create, to give the best of myself. In a way, it almost comes from my heart and that is what drives the inspiration.”

I am then led on my tour of the Faena Art District by press manager, Florencia Binder. All along Avenida Juana Manso, Florencia notes the abundant use of restored construction materials, the imported Mancunian bricks and a seemingly infinite stream of hand-chosen features, unprecedented in a community concept. It is frigid outside but I no longer notice.

We arrive at the hotel, where we are warmly greeted by an entourage of Experience Managers. There is no front desk here, no stiffly fawning charade. The ceiling appears to tower miles above me as guests saunter by with cherubic smiles, pleasantly at home.

We pass through the main corridor, peeking into the Library Lounge, where more guests are joined in spirited conversation. “Every room in the hotel represents a part of the old Argentine tradition,” Faena tells me. “The living room was modelled on the parlours in which the French and British would gather here in Buenos Aires, during the Belle Époque. The Mercado is the cantina. Every place draws its inspiration from the past.”

We pause briefly alongside a lengthy bench, velvet-cushioned and crimson-lit by fixtures on its underbelly. A miniature portrait of Eva Perón sits gingerly on a mantel by the opposite wall. I start to feel as though I could shuffle about from object to object for days, transfixed not by luxury or covetous longing but by a sense that every last item contains a world of inspiration. The Aleph. What differs between the soul of the Faena group and stone rich decadence is simple: one awaits death, the other destiny.

“Buenos Aires is a very international city, similar to New York. I was interested in creating a home for interaction between the local porteños and the international community,” Faena explains.

We walk along from here to Los Molinos building, the site of an old silo now converted into the home of the Faena Arts Centre. Creative Director Ximena Caminos brings in a roster of supreme international and local talent - Cuba’s Los Carpinteros collective presently occupy the main space, while the lower hall displays Buenos Aires’ own Manuel Ameztoy. The Collective’s work is interactive and ambitious, coextensive with space and light. It’s charged with meanings both inscribed in the material and in the poignant awareness of its effect on mind and body.

I had this thought, looking at all the bricks in Alan Faena’s Universe. You see, as we spoke, the pride in his voice was unmistakable and it seemed to me to come just as much from the journey behind his accomplishments as it did from their impressive fruition – so it suddenly seemed to me as though each brick had its own history, representing a day, a struggle, a setback, an epiphany, dumb luck, a miracle, a heartbreak.

Turning to Faena, I ask him what kind of courage it takes to rally people to take a shot at life? With much to learn, I’m asking the question as much for myself as for this interview. He looks me straight in the eyes. “There are very few you can trust, yet you always need people. You cannot do it alone. Trustworthy people are the hardest thing to find, but the most important.”

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