Teetering abruptly over the briny precipice, the city waits to receive the latest bounty of luxuries, innovations and ideas sent bobbing and buffeted by tide and tornado from its far flung peers.
In every waterfront city, the docks represent a rich cultural estuary, where the local eddies and currents of the peculiar freshwater mix and infuse with the wise and wandering plurality of the sea. It is a place often as wild and alien to the city as the waves that lap its quays and wharfs, but also as rich with dynamic diversity as the imports and exports that cluster there.
While the modern rigours of bulk and volume had hastened Puerto Madero into being on the banks of Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires in 1897, modernity marched on and only ten years later advances in boat building technology and the superior Puerto Nuevo left it redundant - an almost still-born relic.
The ebb-tide of industry receded, leaving a space hallowed by the grand ghosts of commerce that drifted forlornly between the vast cathedrals of import and export which, once thrumming with labour, now clung on like the last lonely teeth in a broken smile.
Like dormant volcanoes, the power of these grand structures - the classic red brick itself imported directly from Manchester in England - remained in dust-blown and salt-cured hibernation. Thus was their mute tragedy until 1997 when, awed by the period elegance that had housed and fronted such brute activity, and enervated by the sheer untapped power of the space, an extraordinary alliance was formed. The city’s finest creators and the cream of the international creative community came together and threw themselves into Puerto Madero’s rebirth.
Little more than ten years later, this barrio now electrifies Buenos Aires, a creative dynamo that powers its growth, a mechanism comprised of components crafted by the finest contemporary hands and at its beating heart, the Faena Art District.
Taking its name from visionary Argentinean Alan Faena, who at eighteen had ripped up the design rule book in creating the revolutionary Via Vai fashion label, this extraordinary urban regeneration project took shape in 2005. Conceived by Faena to be an eternally evolving creative space where cutting edge architecture, vanguard artwork and artists, and the spectacular spectrums of nature converge, interact and create, the district represents a glimpse into the sustainable organic coexistence of the ideal urban future.
In visual poetry of massive subtlety, the giant eloquence of the El Porteño Building, the enormous redbrick grain silo that had so inspired Faena originally, was rephrased as the Faena Hotel+Universe. The one-hundred year old structure was seamlessly recast into a seven-storey, five-star luxury hotel by the hand of global design-guru Philippe Starck.
In his first project in Latin America, Starck took Faena’s dream backwards in going forwards, the hotel styled as the rebirth of the Belle Époque - a term itself only coined retrospectively for that magical awakening of art through modernity.
Demonstrating all of Starck’s artistic phrasing, he and Faena chose to label their own modernistic flowering as an act of foresight, an as yet unborn fantasy of futuristic luxury hospitality. It is written in such design delicacies as lapacho wood and arabasceto marble, and festooned with gold-clawed feet and the regal theatricality of red and gold velvet, all worthy of the celebrity guests like Madonna, Jane Birkin, Bill Clinton and Naomi Campbell.
Starck sets this tone emphatically with the haughty and enticing grandeur of the hotel’s ten-metre high entrance - wrought beautifully in red etched glass, the same material used to create the dramatic ceiling-to-floor windows that line both sides of the epic eighty-metre Cathedral.
Starting at opulent, a steep gradient of ever-increasing luxury awaits in the hotel’s one hundred guestrooms and suites, all of which offer spectacular views of Puerto Madero. This curve climaxes with the F Suite - one of the most exclusive of its kind in Latin America and featuring an extraordinary cityscape panorama from the 6th floor.
Pre-eminent in Alan Faena’s manifesto for his hotel and Art District was the insistence that both must feature the work of contemporary innovators at the forefront of their respective fields. This principle led to Starck’s involvement in the hotel and is continued into its kitchens, which are run to the exacting standards of head chef Mariano Cid de la Paz, an award-winning protégé of the culinary legend that is Ferran Adriá.
In El Bistro, Starck and Faena have created a fittingly avant garde environment into which Cid de la Paz’s sumptuous cuisine can arrive. A phalanx of unicorn heads are mounted along the walls, beneath which is draped flowing white silk, and gold candelabras illuminate red Baccarat crystal with their luxurious warmth. In contrast, El Mercado, which takes the classy familiarity of European markets and the rustic cantinas of Buenos Aires as its inspiration, serves its delectable authentic Argentine fare directly from a traditional adobe mud oven.
Faena Hotel+Universe also features the studiously cool Library Lounge and bar, and a thrilling bespoke cabaret whose show Rojo Tango, a vibrant living history of the sweeping grace of the Argentine psyche in movement is in its fifth year of rave reviews. This remarkable complex reawakens the spirits of the past by summoning the freedoms of the future through the innovations of today.
Beyond his hotel, Alan Faena’s design utopia spreads out across this powerfully redolent space on the banks of one of the continents grandest rivers, each dock monolith transformed by truly world class talents into unique, playfully fresh, and technically flawless buildings.
Sitting to one side of the Faena Hotel+Universe are two stunning residential blocks designed by Philippe Starck - a first for this genius of artistic reinvention. La Porteña I and La Porteña II constituted the second phase of the Faena project, which sought to foster an emotional bond between the extraordinary environment, its creators, and residents. This is not simply a visited place, rather a space that is truly inhabited, owned even, by those that live there.
The next illustrious name to attach itself to Faena’s cultural juggernaut was none other than Norman Foster, one of the world’s pre-eminent architects. Foster + Partners’ The Aleph, its first Latin American project, represents a fully sustainable living space that beautifully integrates technological innovation, art, culture, and a commercial area in a cluster of buildings set between Dock 2 and its historic neighbour.
A century ago, the Los Molinos Building was one of Argentina’s largest wheat mills and, thanks to its gorgeously rendered contemporary design, a revered icon of the country’s first belle époque. Located in the former mill’s engine room, the truly iconic Faena Arts Center was opened to tremendous international fanfare in a star-studded inauguration last month, featuring an installation by acclaimed Brazilian sculptor Ernesto Neto.
There is a beautiful symmetry in the relationship between the Arts Center and the Faena Hotel+Universe, the La Porteña buildings and The Aleph, the vast mill of yesteryear and the mammoth grain silos that fed it. The Arts Center processes the raw material - the intellectual commitment and artistic curiosity of those housed and hosted in the district, producing the refined material - the heightened and enlightened sensibility created that through the truly creative interaction with great art.
Faena Art District is, therefore, still a dockland place; pulsating as vibrantly with the spinning dynamo of cultural flux - the interface of industry, intellect, art and hospitality - as a century ago, with the foreign scents of modernity still wafting inland through the brackish air.
- Benjamin Stewart
Faena Art District
Address: Puerto Madero
Tel: 11 4021 5560
Address: Martha Salotti 445
Buenos Aires, C1107CMB
Tel: 11 4010 9000
Faena Arts Center
Address: Aimé Paine 1169
Buenos Aires, 1137
Tel: 11 4010 9233
Alan Faena - Faena Universe