Miami Beach’s arts-centric Faena District

For more than a decade, Miami has been on a rocketing ascent as a lifestyle destination with serious cultural bona fides. Now an Argentine iconoclast is preparing to inaugurate a whole new district. Is Miami ready for the Faena treatment? Maria Shollenbarger reports

Miami Beach
Miami Beach | Image: Shutterstock/ Richard Cavalleri

Miami Beach is a city articulated in the brightest of hues. The turquoise of the water, the preternatural emerald-green coconut palms, the pinks and mints of the art deco façades, the sky’s layered oranges as the slim disc of the sun appears over the Caribbean’s edge each morning; the riot of man- and nature-made colours here seems to reflect something optimistic and indefatigably forward-looking.

Alan Faena (left) and investment partner Len Blavatnik
Alan Faena (left) and investment partner Len Blavatnik | Image: David X Prutting/

On a windy May afternoon, however, the man who’s making one of the boldest, most optimistic investments in Miami Beach’s skyline has chosen to eschew colour altogether. But then, he does this every day. Alan Faena, well over 6ft tall, with a shaved head and an unnervingly steady gaze, is clad entirely in white: creamy-white fedora, snowy-white linen shirt and pants, white Converse All Stars. Apart from slight variations allowing for vagaries of weather and dress codes, he is rarely seen in any other shade. But to mistake the sartorial gesture for understatement or modesty would be to misjudge totally the ambitions Faena has brought to Miami Beach.


Part entrepreneur, part urban-culture clairvoyant, part developer (though he dislikes the moniker), the Argentine-born Faena is best known for identifying a moribund quadrant of Buenos Aires at the height of the country’s recession and turning it into what is today one of the capital’s most vibrant neighbourhoods. In 2002, Puerto Madero was all dirt lots and disused grain silos; today the Faena District, as it’s now known, is home to a five-star hotel (Faena Universe, which opened in 2006), the Faena Art Centre, a nexus for performance and exposition, and Faena Aleph, an ultra-contemporary luxury residential tower designed by Foster + Partners (its first completed building in South America) – all set within a couple of blocks of each other.

The Rem Koolhaas-designed Faena Forum 
The Rem Koolhaas-designed Faena Forum  | Image: Hayes Davidson

Faena’s plans in Miami Beach are even more wide-reaching, and involve many of the same players he worked with in Buenos Aires: his investment partner, the Ukranian-born Len Blavatnik; Ximena Caminos, an artist, arts consultant and museum curator who is also Faena’s partner; the Pritzker Prize winner Norman Foster. But also on board here are the ebullient Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, whose restaurant in Garzón, Uruguay, is a cult destination; Rem Koolhaas, the eminent Dutch architect-cum-intellectual; and, somewhat improbably, the Australian film director Baz Luhrmann and his wife and creative partner, Catherine Martin, who will spearhead interior design for a portfolio of luxury residences.

Hotelier Ian Schrager
Hotelier Ian Schrager | Image: AP

All have been enlisted to create Miami Beach’s own Faena District – only the second such official designation in Miami’s history – with a near-$1bn investment, the mayor’s blessing and no shortage of curious eyes on the project. The district will follow a curve of Collins Avenue between 32nd and 35th streets, comprised of conventional components tweaked to reflect Faena’s own vision. The hotel is the storied Saxony (rechristened Faena Hotel Miami Beach), renovated and reduced from some 300 rooms to 169, with, among other flamboyant attractions, a Colón-inspired dinner theatre seating 300, and an Argentine restaurant (one of three) manned by Mallmann and his team. There will be three discrete groups of ultra-luxurious flats: 13 designed by Luhrmann and Martin will cover the hotel’s top floors, and 27 others will fill the curvilinear, glass and steel Faena House, the Foster + Partners-designed tower next door (all are already sold, to the likes of art dealer Larry Gagosian and, reportedly, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein). In 2017, more will come onto the market in The Versailles, a 1946 landmark tower that William Sofield – the interior designer behind Tom Ford boutiques worldwide – is currently restoring back to its mirror-clad, terrazzo-floored glory.  

One of 26, one-of-a-kind Miami Beach Edition residences designed by John Pawson 
One of 26, one-of-a-kind Miami Beach Edition residences designed by John Pawson  | Image: Alex Morris Visualisation Ltd and Gilbert McCarragher

There will also be the Koolhaas-designed Faena Forum, a visual and performing-arts centre whose programming allegiances with Paris Opera Ballet and Sadler’s Wells have been brokered by the formidably well-connected Caminos; and a whimsical take on the standard Miami retail mall (Faena Bazaar, a painstakingly curated stable of small artisans selling across four floors of open-plan, pop-up-style spaces). It seems for all intents and purposes a luxury development, though a sort of iconoclastic luxury, if Faena will allow. He will not. “It’s authenticity,” he posits gently instead, after wincing slightly at the word “luxury”. “It’s about offering a truth.” Ambitious development such as this can only be as successful as a city’s willingness to use it; and despite his inclination to lofty rhetoric, Faena believes that his truth – his ability to cohere his vision of a way of life through buildings, service, design and art – is what will compel residents, and visitors, to embrace his district.

The Faena Versailles residences, Miami 
The Faena Versailles residences, Miami  | Image: Hayes Davidson

Though cities across the world are in competition for developers with Alan Faena’s gold-dust talents and backing, few would have presented such an ideal fit for them. With a history of tolerance and diversity to match New York’s or LA’s, Miami is a palimpsest of racial, cultural, architectural and artistic influences. “It has always been a porous place,” says Amy Cappellazzo, co-founder of Art Agency, Partners and a former global chairman at Christie’s, who lived in Miami from 1994 until 2001. “It has always attracted and welcomed outsiders; there’s no deep or huge social hierarchy as in other cites.” This tolerance extends, fortunately for Faena, to accommodate serial reinvention of the skyline. The art deco masterpieces that went up in the 1930s and 1940s along Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive were already headed out of fashion around the time Morris Lapidus began to erect his visions, culminating in the early 1950s with the 1,504-room Fontainebleau Hotel. By the mid-1980s, much of Miami Beach had sunk slightly into ignominiousness – the art deco treasures peeling, the boardwalk patrolled largely by pensioners and vagrants, the city’s signal cultural reference point for the rest of the world the TV series Miami Vice.

Interior designer William Sofield 
Interior designer William Sofield  | Image: Don Freeman

Property developers and hoteliers, then, are among the most welcome migrants here, as they are historically the agents of change. The late Tony Goldman, the New York visionary who rehabilitated several buildings below Houston Street to help create SoHo, turned his attention to Miami Beach in the 1980s, nurturing it back from near-squalor (along with local developer Craig Robins). Then came Ian Schrager, who in 1995 took over a tired old hotel on Collins Avenue called The Delano, and magicked it into a lifestyle destination for East Coast Americans – presaging what has become one of the defining strategies of luxury hoteliers here, Faena among them.

Cecconi’s restaurant at Soho Beach House 
Cecconi’s restaurant at Soho Beach House 

And then came Art Basel Miami Beach. There is no discussing the propulsive ascent of Miami-as-Destination onto the world stage without acknowledging the role the fair has played since Samuel Keller launched it in 2002, or the knock-on effect it has had on development – of hotels, residences, museums, even entire neighbourhoods. What was at first an art-world anomaly became within four years a must-attend event – a combination, say many, of the market’s early-2000s explosion, the raft of ancillary shows that sprung up around the fair (including Design Miami, co-founded by Robins) and the appeal of balmy Caribbean breezes in December. Art Basel Miami Beach’s social cachet was established at its inception, with prominent local collectors such as Donald and Mera Rubell and Rosa de La Cruz opening their houses to welcome guests keen to admire recent acquisitions. A-List gallery owners – Jay Jopling, Jeffrey Deitch – threw famously A-list parties; celebrities with little knowledge of fine art descended on the fair just to make the scene. In 2002, there were 160 galleries participating; in 2014, there were almost 270 from more than 30 countries, and the fair attracted 73,000 visitors. “It really happened because Miami already had a perfect storm of local collectors and artists,” says David Maupin, of Lehmann Maupin galleries in New York and Hong Kong, who began visiting Miami regularly in the 1990s. The big Miami collectors, Maupin notes, have put their collections into spaces open to the public. The Pérez Art Museum and the Bass Museum are now, he says, “totally world class; from a strictly cultural point of view there’s been a real ripple effect in Miami culture”, thanks to the fair.

Ernesto Neto’s Egg Bed Crystal Shell A at Art Basel Miami Beach, 2014
Ernesto Neto’s Egg Bed Crystal Shell A at Art Basel Miami Beach, 2014 | Image: AP

“[Art Basel Miami Beach] is really the bedrock of the contemporary culture calendar we’re creating here,” says Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine, who is nearing the end of his first term in office. “It was a real stimulus when it arrived – a kind of directive, from outside, to focus on creativity.” Levine is a huge proponent of Faena’s: “He’s the type of entrepreneur who knows exactly where he’s going, even if you don’t see it. He can always see the end.” A former real estate investor himself, Levine is acknowledged for bringing private-sector instincts to his vision for public service, and for seeing Miami’s commodity potential in ambitious terms. “We have a unique niche product in Miami. We have a government that’s open and welcoming to investment. We have an enormously diverse population and low taxes. The airport is maybe a 25-minute ride from the centre of town. We have this amazing setting – the beach, the water – and weather.” Miami Beach has, increasingly, a top-notch skyline: Levine cites five significant buildings designed by Pritzker Prize winners (among them Zaha Hadid and Herzog & De Meuron, who have, rather oddly, contributed car parks to the horizon). But it also has preservation societies and civil servants keen to see its listed buildings renovated and used, despite the requisite restrictions imposed on architects and developers.


It’s in part why Faena was willing to take on The Saxony and The Versailles; and why a remarkable number of luxury hoteliers have populated Collins Avenue, rehabilitating entire blocks of once-neglected buildings. In 2010, Soho Beach House opened a hotel to accompany the private members’ club. W Hotels & Resorts opened in 2009; Metropolitan by Como, Thompson Hotels and Edition Hotels, the Ian Schrager-Marriott collaboration, have all planted flags in the past year or so. Starwood Capital Group founder Barry Sternlicht has recently debuted 1 Hotel South Beach, the first hotel in a new brand touting sustainability bona fides. Towards the northern end, Nobu Matsushisa has recently taken on the 1956 Eden Roc for his luxury hotel brand.

Seventeen years after he opened The Delano, thereby recasting Miami Beach as a desirable destination for New Yorkers young enough to be building pensions rather than collecting them, Schrager’s Miami Beach Edition – a slick, white-on-beige restoration of the Hotel Seville – encapsulates much of what defines the city circa 2015. There is the starchitect component, in an adjacent 18-storey residence tower, designed by John Pawson; there are the famous chefs and the nods to Miami Beach heritage (Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s brilliant reprisal of the hotel’s original Matador Room recalls its glamorous supper-club days). There is the VIP-party quotient (Schrager is after all the man who co-founded Studio 54) in The Basement, the underground dance club and lounge. Art Agency’s Cappellazzo summarises perfectly the cultural pinnacle the city is having when she says, “There’s a feeling that you can have serious conversations here now” – but people are coming to have fun too. All along the beach, lined in hundreds of rows of multicoloured hotel umbrellas, slim-hipped cabana boys run about with green juices and tuna sashimi and splits of blancs de blancs. At Soho Beach House members dine, feet literally in the sand, at Mandolin Beach, an alfresco take on a Cycladean taverna that’s a sister to a popular restaurant in the Design District – a once run-down neighbourhood transformed into a luxury retail destination, largely by Dacra, Robins’s real estate company.

It was inevitable that a cultural and lifestyle boom in Miami Beach would proliferate out into other parts of the city, such as the Design District. Wynwood, just across Biscayne Bay from Miami Beach, has Goldman, once again (along with art dealer Jeffrey Deitch), largely to thank for its development. For years prior to his death in 2012, he was focused on reinventing this neighbourhood of working-class bungalows and warehouses into a vibrant artists’ community. At its epicentre is Wynwood Walls, showcasing works by preeminent and emerging graffiti artists. The space was later extended to incorporate the Wynwood Doors; nearby Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, a Goldman-backed restaurant, hums with activity at night. Today, a stroll through the surrounding area might reveal an artist at work, spray can in hand – or an important collector browsing the half-dozen or so quality galleries, or an enthusiastic visitor from São Paulo or Hong Kong visiting the Rubell Family Collection (housed in a repurposed Drug Enforcement Agency building) or the Margulies Collection at the Warehouse – opened in 1999 by Martin Margulies to showcase the de Koonings, Ruschas and Mirós he had amassed. “I absolutely rate Wynwood,” says Maupin. “There are very legitimate, well-run exhibition spaces; I visit Locust Projects [a not-for-profit exhibition space founded here in 1998] every time I come to town.”

Even Asia is in on the gold rush. Swire, the Hong Kong-based luxury property developer, broke ground in 2012 on Brickell City Centre, in Miami’s “downtown” financial district; the project will include almost 500,000sq m of retail, dining, hotel, office and residential space designed by the local architecture firm Arquitectonica. When you consider that this company took a formerly nondescript tract of land auctioned by the Hong Kong government and remade it as Pacific Place, now home to The Upper House, one of the world’s best urban luxury hotels, you can see the possibilities for glamour even in the white-collar-and-suit belt of town.

Levine, meanwhile, extolls the virtues of “emerging” North Beach; others enthuse over Coconut Grove, where Koolhaas and Danish wunderkind Bjarke Ingels have duelling residential commissions, to be completed in the next few years. But the fun-having, culture-loving, arms-open soul of the city will likely remain Miami Beach; and, come November, Alan Faena’s ambitious district will officially be a part of it – whimsy, vision, truth and all.

Intrigued by the iconoclastic Alan Faena? Discover his top Miami Beach hotspots. And for another hotelier’s favourite city haunts, see Ian Schrager’s New York. Or to view another new neighbourhood development with cultural clout, see London City Island.

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