Standing tall in his broad-brimmed white panama, white trousers, white shoes, dress shirt and creamy raincoat, Alan Faena is in danger of disappearing into the sparkling marble walls of the arts centre he has created in a former Buenos Aires mill. He looks every inch the fashion mogul he once was and, perhaps, less the international property developer he is becoming.
There’s nothing new about turning industrial infrastructure into cultural complexes; from New York to Beijing, via London, Madrid and Moscow, it has become one of the most familiar tropes of urban development. But there is something compelling about the district where Faena has set to work, the way it builds on a history of global interchange and trade.
Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires’ central docks, was the conduit for Argentina’s wealth. It was from here that mountains of beef and grain were shipped across the world, yielding profits that fuelled the city’s turn-of-the-20th-century construction boom. The docks and warehouses, like the country’s railways, were designed and built by British engineers; every single red brick in the huge dockside building that is now the Faena Hotel + Universe was imported from Manchester.
Those bricks now create a rusty rustic surface, an industrial curtain against which Faena’s absurdly (and enjoyably) opulent Philippe Starck-designed hotel sparkles.
The luxurious hotel, designed by a French designer in a British-style warehouse to evoke belle epoque Buenos Aires, embodies this ongoing history of globalism but, then, so does the whole city. Almost all its best buildings were designed by European émigrés and its centre is the most truly pan-European beaux arts downtown anywhere in the world. Just look at the name of the architect of the new arts centre, Miguel Angel McCormack.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe’s avant-garde architects, including Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier came to Buenos Aires and found the docksides populated by industrial behemoths, vast, unselfconscious monuments to function in the form of grain silos, warehouses, wharves and mills. These were buildings that seemed to reveal their use effortlessly, designed not by the architects who were confecting replicas of French chateaux, Viennese apartment blocks or Italian palaces but by engineers concerned with efficiency. On returning home, the European visitors brought back photos of how a new modernist world might look.
Despite their scale and influence, though, the industrial architecture didn’t fare well. Much of it was demolished; other bits were left derelict as trade moved outwards. Faena snapped up these fragments of industry during Argentina’s financial collapse a decade ago, investing more than $50m in time for the country’s subsequent astonishing bounce-back to prosperity. It was a perceptive purchase, Puerto Madero is becoming the city’s answer to London’s Docklands or New York’s Dumbo, its apartments snapped up by cash-rich Latin Americans seeking havens for their money.
Faena’s restored remnants of a colossal culture of export, however, look odd in a larger landscape of contemporary development that is as anonymous as any from California to Chongqing. Dull towers and bland blocks frame dead streets and dim plazas; a Calatrava bridge makes it look more like everywhere than anywhere in particular. But the developer is trying hard: Foster & Partners is building a seductively transparent apartment block (named “The Aleph” after a Jorge Luis Borges story), while a projected new square is intended to create a centre. But that still leaves the new arts complex much to do.
The mountainous old mill was converted to apartments, an elegant, neoclassical mass that makes an impressive piece of cityscape. The arts centre, in the adjacent engine room, is approached from a small new plaza with one flanking wall decorated with a superb laser-cut, op art-ish mural by Argentine artist Pablo Siquier. The main gallery is on the first floor, up a set of steps that give it the feel of a traditional municipal museum.
The surprise starts from the first moment of physical engagement. The handrails and door handles are shiny, chamfered deco-lite, big, ostentatious and showy things that would look at home in a Miami hotel. You are immediately introduced to the idea that this will not be a gritty meditation on industrial decline and found space but a vision of Latin luxury. The huge arched windows cast a brilliant light on to the richly-veined marble surfaces and the opulent effect is a little unsettling. Galleries for contemporary art tend towards either the ubiquitous pseudo-neutrality of the white cube (there is, of course, no such thing as neutral space; even the whitest, dullest of cubes is loaded with meaning and history) or the found space of a domestic or industrial interior. The lofty, cavernous Faena is certainly white but it has no pretensions of neutrality; it is fashion-art space, a catwalk as much for people as for art.
Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto, whose installation has inaugurated the new space, seems to have absorbed this completely. His characteristically complex, organic structure of string nets, balls and stones both responds to and questions the space’s ostentatious perfection. Entitled “Crazy Hyperculture in the Vertigo of the World”, it looks like something dredged up from the bottom of the sea. The suspended nets become a ropewalk, difficult to negotiate and fun to watch as people (whose movement becomes the art) stumble along the length of the gallery up and down its odd inclines and uneven surfaces.
“Instability,” remarked Neto at the opening, as one of his children looked down from the netting above, mimicking his expansive hand gestures, “is the natural state of things.” He expressed surprise to me at how shiny the space had turned out but, if anything, there is an extra frisson in seeing the resolutely messy installation reflected in a spotless floor.
Another space on the ground floor gives the gallery a shop window, a space that communicates with the street in an area where the streetscape is still embryonic (and where it needs all the help it can get). There will also be a bookshop, which will help push the development’s integration into the city along. The incorporation of a Starbucks does little to foster a sense of place in the plaza but, for the opening at least, the few smokers, drivers, clip-board bearers and al fresco flirters lent the beginnings of urbanity.
Faena is a canny operator. Backed by the US/London-based billionaire Len Blavatnik, he is now expanding internationally. The Faena Arts District is intended to make this an island of culture in a sea of urban banality – and, of course, it brings cachet to the residential developments, adding value and defining a sense of place. But he has also saved a few examples of the industrial scale and texture that make the area what it is.
The long run of preserved warehouses on the opposite (city) side now accommodates a mix of uses, from restaurants and retail to the Catholic University, and there is a sense this could become a real district.
Borges, Buenos Aires’ most famous writer, once said: “Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.” And Faena seems to have created, if not yet a landscape of stone, then at least a handful of wonderful pebbles.