Industry Insiders: Alan Faena, Argentine Hotelero

The force behind Buenos Aires’ famed Faena Hotel + Universe talks about remaking neighborhoods, working with Philippe Starck and Norman Foster, and how to survive the coming bad times.

Point of Origin: I started in the fashion world, then sold my fashion company Via Vai and took three years off, a sabbatical of sorts, just really spending time at my beach house [in Jose Ignacio, Uruguay], gardening, taking care of the plants, enjoying my free time. Buenos Aires needed a place for people to congregate, a place for local people to meet up with people from the rest of the world. The city was in the midst of a rebirth after a really profound [economic and political] crisis, and I found a part of Buenos Aires that was abandoned completely, that didn’t even exist really. I found it inspiring to be able to invent a neighborhood from scratch. The focal point of the new neighborhood would be this hotel in an old, abandoned grain warehouse. And that was the beginning of the transformation of this entire neighborhood, Puerto Madero.

I went out and looked for investors. I had some great people early on that believed in me. Chris Burch, Austin Hearst. All New York people. When everyone here was shutting doors in your face — you remember how difficult things were here [in Argentina] during the [2001 economic crisis] — nobody was investing in new projects. So I packed my bags, headed to New York, told people about my project, and Chris Burch introduced me to a lot of people in New York that opened a lot of doors for me.

Known Associates: This was a co-production with Philippe Starck. We worked very closely together to make sure that this wasn’t just another international project, but something that Philippe, with his vision and genius, could really re-interpret that belle époque that we had in Buenos Aires when this building was originally built at the turn of the century. Each space represents a different part of the old Buenos Aires. El Mercado is the old “cantina” [popular Buenos Aires eateries] style, the immigrants, the mix of people. El Living (the living room) is all those grand estancias from the beginning of the century. El Bistro is the old, magnificent cafes like La Ideal. El Cabaret represents that Buenos Aires as Paris moment of yesteryear, the Avenida Corrientes elegance. Every space is based on some part of the city’s history.

Buenos Aires is a port city, yet it’s often said that Portenos live with their backs turned to the water. Why do you think that is, and why did you set up on the waterfront? Well, we’re a city of immigrants, and immigrants arrive from the water, and they want to penetrate into the city, to leave the water, to turn their backs on their origins many times. The water is where they came from, and they want to look forward and not look back.

What other projects do you have going on? We have the new project with Norman Foster in Buenos Aires that we just started. Keep in mind that in addition to the hotel in this neighborhood, we’ve built over 200,000 square meters of residential space … we have cultural centers, commercial real estate … The hotel was just the beginning of the entire project. Today it’s grown well beyond that. The neighborhood is a reality today, the Norman Foster project is a reality. So to have in a relatively small area projects by Philippe Starck and Norman Foster, in addition to Argentine architects, cultural centers. We’ve already started construction on the Norman Foster project, and in 15 months it should be ready. Its his first project in Latin America; it’s important for Buenos Aires as a whole, having these big-name architects. It further solidifies the international nature of the city.

How do you put together these massive projects knowing that, in Argentina, every seven years or so there is a deep crisis? Well, it has the risk element certainly — the roller coaster quality which in a way makes things more interesting. But look at New York now; you’re not used to it over there, no one is immune to these types of economic crises anymore. It just means that we’re more prepared for it because we’re used to dealing with this kind of stuff. It makes us more creative and more aware that everything can end.

People here are freaking out over the economic crisis that’s coming. There’s a lot of fear. I think part of the reason people in Buenos Aires are interesting and cultured is that they have to constantly re-invent themselves in order to adapt to these dramatic changes. When everything is stable, people sort of float along. Here you have to constantly be moving, like sharks. If you stop moving, you’re toast.

How do you feel about the newcomers in the neighborhood? Well, we knew we couldn’t control everything. We tried to control as much as possible, in order to impose our own aesthetic. In a way its interesting to see how other people have developed in conjunction with our project, though it would be nice to have the whole neighborhood to maintain at the level we work at — with designers, architects, etc. I always say that real estate is delicate business, not just another industry, because you’re building the future of the city. Its not the same to create an intelligent, thought-out building by Norman Foster, or a Philippe Starck building that contemplates the history of the city like we did. How to reinvent the city, what people like, the social aspect taken into account, every inch carefully thought out, with a purpose, as opposed to just building to make a quick buck on the square meter of real estate, which makes the city a worse place. Buildings are public works … they can enhance or ruin a block, a neighborhood, a city. A terrible building next to your house can destroy your life.

Favorite hangs? In Buenos Aires I like to go to El Obrero, which is an old cantina [in La Boca]. It’s an interesting place because it reflects the old blood in Buenos Aires, the mix of Spanish and Italian food. It’s a place of inspiration for me, always has been.

Any plans to do something in New York? Yes, I am looking for opportunities there. I like the mix of art, culture, and lifestyle which we do and would be well received in New York, I think.

Industry Icons: I admire Philippe Starck and Norman Foster, which is why I worked with them. And I admire them more because I was able to see how they work from close up. I like Ian Schrager.

What are you doing tonight? I was just asking myself the same question. You have to ask me again in a little bit when I figure it out. Having fun somewhere, I hope.

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