In Miami Beach, a once run-down district gets a bold new start

This weekend’s launch of an amibitious new arts centre marks a key stage in the rebirth of the Faena District

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Should you ever have wondered why Collins Avenue, the 13-mile drag that runs the length of Miami Beach, is so named, the answer is to honour the memory of John Collins. He was the developer who, during the 1890s, bought the marshy, mosquito-ridden, alligator-infested northern half of the island and literally drained the swamp (by building a canal) in order to cultivate mangos, avocados and coconuts. He also built a bridge, connecting Miami Beach across Biscayne Bay to the city of Miami, so laying the foundations, so to speak, for the building boom that followed. Collins may have preferred horticulture to hospitality — he left it to his children to build the “new Atlantic City” — but by the early 20th century, Miami Beach had hitched its future to tourism.

There is therefore a precedent for real estate developers’ names being appended to their creations but, even so, it’s unusual for a city to christen a whole district after someone. Last year, however, the mayor of the City of Miami Beach, Philip Levine, suggested that the seven blocks that straddle Collins Avenue between 32nd and 36th Streets be named the Faena District after Alan Faena, an Argentine entrepreneur and self-styled “urban alchemist” who is leading a $1.2bn project to transform this once rundown area into something of a destination in its own right.

First came the renovation and relaunch of two hotels and the construction of an elegant residential tower, designed by Foster and Partners. Both Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs chairman and chief executive, and the art dealer Larry Gagosian own apartments in the tower, and its duplex penthouse sold for a reported $60m, a new Miami record. This weekend, the second phase will be unveiled with the opening of the district’s arts centre, the Faena Forum, designed by architects OMA. Rem Koolhaas, OMA’s founder, says he believes the Forum “is destined to become one of America’s most coveted event destinations for the world’s creative elite”.

The building — a white cube and a cylinder, both in poured concrete and punctured by about 400 differently shaped windows — “is not a typical art place”, Faena tells me. There will be not just performances and exhibitions but also talks, lectures, readings and debates, hence the circular amphitheatre, clad in pale pink marble, on its first level. “We want it to be an incubator, a laboratory not just for art but science, philosophy, politics, debates, fashion, discussions,” says its artistic director, Ximena Caminos, who has a long CV as a curator and is also Faena’s wife. “We want to create cultural turbulence.”

Its programming will also aim to cultivate collaborations between practitioners of different disciplines. This week, for example, it will host a specially commissioned dance work by Pam Tanowitz, designed by the building’s lead architect, Shohei Shigematsu of OMA, with costumes by the Spanish fashion designer Sybilla. Next year, “Tree of Codes”, the British choreographer Wayne McGregor’s collaboration with the artist Olafur Eliasson, musician Jamie xx and novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, will play here before it gets to London. As Caminos points out, Miami Beach already has three important arts institutions: the New World Center, perhaps the world’s most technologically advanced concert hall, Miami City Ballet and the Bass Museum of Art. The Faena Forum, she hopes, will come to be seen as their equal.

The pool at the Faena Hotel, Miami

Certainly it is a striking building. From the amphitheatre, one ascends via a ramp and a series of staircases to a much larger space, crowned by a huge dome ribbed like the inside of a nautilus shell and lit by a central oculus “like the one in the Pantheon”, notes Faena. It can be contained as a circular room or opened out into the adjoining cube, allowing for flexibility and audiences of up to 800. Last week they tested the amphitheatre acoustic with a solo recital of Bach cello suites; next week Madonna will perform in the main space in aid of her foundation Raising Malawi.

Until four years ago, this stretch of Mid Beach was nothing more than parking lots, wasteland and four dilapidated hotels. Three of them — the Saxony, which opened in 1948, the Versailles (1940) and the Atlantic (1939) — had been designed by Roy France, one of the masters of Miami Modernism, so their exteriors were protected, as was the fourth, the Spanish-style Casa Claridge’s. Faena could simply have refurbished them or turned them into apartments but, in the belief that culture makes a neighbourhood, he insisted it needed a not-for-profit arts space, too.

The Faena Forum © Iwan Baan

Next he enlisted two stellar architects in the hope, as he puts it, that “Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas would dance a tango together” around the existing buildings, so creating a cohesive area of landmarks old and new. The 14-storey Saxony, now rebranded the Faena, and Casa Claridge’s, soon to become Casa Faena, retain their original purpose. The four-floor Atlantic, however, is poised to become a retail complex, Faena Bazaar, a “carefully curated souk” (mall might be nearer the mark), where emerging designers with no presence in Miami will have concessions or pop-ups.

He hasn’t yet decided what to do with the old Versailles building but a second Foster-designed residential tower is being built adjacent to it. Opposite that is perhaps the world’s most beautiful and mechanically sophisticated multistorey car park, also designed by OMA, faced in perforated cast concrete through which one will be able to glimpse the colours of the 235 cars stacked within it.

The lobby at the Faena Hotel, Miami

Most visitors to the district will be drawn by the Faena Hotel, on which the developer collaborated with the film director Baz Luhrmann and his costume-designer wife, Catherine Martin (both of whom were plainly channelling The Great Gatsby, so the decor is a couple of decades out of sync with the architecture).

As a hotel it is fabulous in the purest sense: a fantastical, crazily extravagant Art Deco palace, bordering on the preposterous but realised with such chutzpah that I could not help like it. Much of its splendour is attributable to the art that has been integrated into its fabric: Juan Gatti’s exotic murals and mosaic floors in the lobby; the glorious black and gold painted-glass panels in the Saxony Bar; and Alberto Garutti’s circular chandeliers of naked bulbs that are wired to flicker when lightning strikes in a designated million sq metre stretch of Argentinian pampas.

The chandeliers can be found in the Living Room, a lounge/bar that is a riot of animal prints and big-cat ceramic sculpture (the creation of Frank Pollaro, best known for his work on Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s yachts, and the furniture range he designed with Brad Pitt), and the restaurant Los Fuegos, where the celebrated Argentine chef Francis Mallmann oversees a kitchen where they cook over a wood fire and serve wonderful steak.

There is more fine cooking at the other restaurant, Pao by Paul Qui, which offers a kind of Asian fusion full of unexpected pairings: who knew sea urchin went so well with sweetcorn, a dish they call “The Unicorn”, a nod to Damien Hirst’s half-flayed-unicorn sculpture, “The Golden Myth”, which dominates the decor.

There is another Hirst in the garden, a vitrine containing the gold-plated 10,000-year-old skeleton of a mammoth, entitled “Gone But Not Forgotten”, for which a hurricane-proof cover was being constructed during my stay. Both works are on loan from Len Blavatnik, the Ukrainian-born American financier behind the whole project. He and Faena first collaborated on a regeneration scheme in Buenos Aires’ impoverished Puerto Madero back in 2000.

“I have a passion for transformation,” says Faena, when we meet amid the gilded Egyptian-style columns of the hotel lobby — which they call, without irony, “the Cathedral”. (You have to park any sensitivity to pretentiousness when you arrive at a Faena project and focus on the achievement, not the nomenclature.) “I don’t consider myself a developer. Or a hotelier. I work much more like an artist.”

Alan Faena

An imposing figure who dresses only in white and is rarely seen without a hat, Faena began his career in fashion, creating the still-thriving brand Via Vai in 1980s Buenos Aires, “just as the country was becoming a democracy and opening up”, he says. He sold it in 1996 and, while pondering what to do next, decided to grow roses at his coastal property in Uruguay, cultivating a hybrid (which he named after himself, like practically everything he turns his hand to). Its colour — Faena red — is everywhere in the hotel, from the soap in the bathrooms to the stairs in the Bazaar. “I find red very inspiring,” he says. “And gold, too. They are the colours that express my passion for doing things. They are my window on reality.”

Spend an hour in his company, though, in the unexpectedly down-to-earth building-site trailer he uses as an office, and for all the philosophising and apparent pseudery (English is not his first language, after all), it is hard not to be swept up by his enthusiasm and ambition.

“One thing that Miami Beach prides itself on is its ability to allow the creativity to flow without boxing it in,” Mayor Levine told me by phone. “I think what Alan and Ximena have done transcends Miami Beach. People are going to come to the Faena District, to its art centre, to its hotels, from all over the world. It’s a transformational force, not just for Miami but the whole region.”

Details

Claire Wrathall was a guest of the Faena Hotel Miami Beach (faena.com; double rooms from $489). Doubles at Casa Claridge’s cost from $184. More travel information at miamiandbeaches.com

Photographs: Iwan Baan

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