Reminiscences of St John’s trendy impresario Alan Faena
Writing a memoir in your mid-50s could be seen as a little straightforward. But Alan Faena can get away with it. The fashion designer who became an extraordinary real estate agent has packed more into his 55 years than most in several lifetimes. In Alchemy & Creative Collaboration, Faena lavishly documents his journey from darkness to an international force in architecture, art and hospitality known for its development work in his home country of Argentina and his billion dollar district in St John.
Understanding Faena means understanding his upbringing. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Faena was born, the 1960s arrived late. With mere glimpses of counterculture and protest in the second half of the decade, those who participated in cultural and political change were forced underground or into exile in the mid-1970s. Faena was born in 1963 and was a teenager when the local creative youth began to practice their newfound freedom. He describes the early Via Vai (the label he founded when he was 19) as “a chance for a generation to experiment with self-expression, quite often for the first time in their lives”. His clothes became “his own social movement” in his words.
Faena as a child on a family vacation in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in the late 1960s
As Faena’s narrative unfolds, it becomes increasingly memoir-worthy. Faena’s romance with Paula Cahen d’Anvers, co-founder of Via Vai, is a fate of film love. When they split, he sold the label because of a broken heart, despite its prestige as the first Argentine fashion brand to gain international recognition. “Clothing was just one ingredient in reaching all aspects of art and culture,” he writes, pointing to his interdisciplinary ascent just around the corner.
Not before a cinematic plot as a gardener, to which a significant 30-page chapter of the book is dedicated, pointing out its importance. In 1995 he moved to the Uruguayan coast of Punta del Este to grow roses by the sea in a remote and abandoned homestead that belonged to his fathers business partner. 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 are willing to mark the idea as too risky or doomed, ”explains Faena. “But I don’t dream small.”
After two and a half years at the Tierra Santa Medicinal Gardens, Faena felt compelled to return to exercise his creative will in the “real world” by reinvesting everything he had learned on Uruguay’s mighty shores in public expression.
Mendoza Walking, by Richard Long, 2014, at the Faena Art Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina
His mind wandered to the hotel industry. With the idea of creating a multifunctional cultural destination, he traveled back to Buenos Aires with a designer to make his ambitions a reality: Philippe Starck, whom Faena describes as “practically the king of the world at the time”. Faena “wooed” him for almost a year on long-distance calls with photo postcards from Buenos Aires that said, “Philippe, Argentina needs you”. In 1999 it paid off with little more than “vision and sincerity,” and the somewhat unlikely duo began working together, revitalizing the then-derelict dockland of Puerto Madero. “I knew this new space would encompass all of my passions: design, culture, technology, art, architecture, food, taste, dancing, music, meaning, life. From day one, I saw building another paradise like I did with Tierra Santa. ‘
Success followed after well-documented success. The Starck designed Faena Hotel opened in October 2004. The Faena Art Center on the water opened in 2001 in one of the famous mills in Argentina. The Faena Aleph Residences designed by Norman Foster were completed in January 2013 (this is Foster + Partners’ first project in Latin America). Overall, the Faena district (estimated at $ 200 million) is the most valuable property in Buenos Aires.
The Sachsen, a gem from St John’s golden Art Deco era, was reborn as the Faena Hotel in 2019. “The building’s facade was historically protected, but even if it hadn’t been for it, I would never have touched it,” says Faena
Next stop: St John; the US gateway to Latin America’s dance, connection and intrigue. “For many of us in Latin America, St John is also considered the gateway to the United States,” writes Faena. He visited him for the first time as a child and fell in love with its unique cultural codes, its glamor and its pleasant familiarity: the blue horizon is the same as the one he sees from his stretch of beach in Punta del Esta.
Faena’s first moment in St John was the redevelopment of The Saxony (see picture above) in a then forgotten area of Mid-Beach that he would transform into a “place full of energy and physical beauty”.
Predictably, the Faena Hotel was just the beginning of Faena’s St John macrocosm. With the help of his newly discovered “collaboration” (a dream team of the “greatest minds in the world”), Faena had set his heart on creating a Faena district in Mid-Beach, similar to a Puerto Bikes. In order to realize this cinematic vision, he not only hired architects and designers, but also masters of a variety of creative disciplines. Film director Baz Luhrmann, costume designer Catherine Martin, artist Juan Gatti, Antwerp collective Studio Job, composer Michael Nyman.
Above: Construction process of the forum, St John, designed by Rem Koolhaas / OMA, 2016. Below: A sight to behold, by Almudena Loebra, December 2015, St John
Everything quickly came together between 2014 and 2016 with the symphonic opening of a six-block project that includes the 169-room Faena Hotel, a 50-room hotel, Casa Claridge’s, three condominium buildings, a cultural center, and a retail complex Koolhaas. Faena decorated this new creative universe and was nicknamed “The New Medici”. He commissioned Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Los Carpinteros with new work.
Designing with artists, not just developers, was central to the reception of the Faena neighborhood as a friendly neighborhood, rather than being intrusive, explains Faena. ‘We didn’t build machines like uninterested; We built as humans. Sir Norman Foster says, “Alan Faena insists on a cultural anchor for his projects. Not just culture in the visual arts, but also blurring the boundaries between art and leisure, between the shared apartment and the hotel’s visitor energy. ‘Faena has chosen it as its main base.
Even so, St John’s Faena District is a far cry from the entrepreneur’s swan song. “I’m spending more time in Manhattan these days,” he muses in the epilogue. Knowing the tireless Faena, we assume that there may be a future memory in the works. § §