Letter From Miami: Celebrating Alan Faena's New Arts District

Just in time for Art Basel, the dandyish Argentine entrepreneur opens the doors to a new art space, the capstone of his namesake district in Mid-Beach, and marks the achievement with a fete.

Two events dominated the festivities leading up to the opening of Art Basel Miami Beach on December 1. One was the death of Fidel Castro, which caused thousands of Cuban exiles and their descendants to spill into the streets of Little Havana, Hialeah, and Kendall on Saturday evening, honking horns and banging pots and pans in celebration. The other, far more orchestrated event was instead tied to a birth: a two-day bacchanal to mark the completion of flamboyant Argentine developer Alan Faena’s $1.2 billion luxury-arts complex in a long-neglected section of Mid-Beach. 

On Sunday, a carnival-like procession of brass bands, performers, and food trucks paraded through a stretch of Collins Avenue between 32nd and 36th streets, bordered by the buildings that make up the officially designated Faena District: Faena Hotel Miami Beach (built within the old Saxony, a 1948 Art Deco gem), Faena House (a sleek residential tower designed by Foster + Partners), Faena Bazaar (a multipurpose retail and events space), Faena Car Park (a parking garage), and—the final piece of the puzzle—Faena Forum, a performance hall and arts center modeled in part after Rome’s Pantheon. Those last three structures were designed by Shohei Shigematsu, of Rem Koolhaass’s architecture firm OMA.

If it sounds like I’ve used the word “Faena” a lot, that's no accident. The whole enterprise, like the original Faena District in Buenos Aires, is built around the entrepreneur’s outsized aura. His wide-brimmed Panama hat—white, like his signature suits—adorns everything from the hotel’s pillowcases to the concierges’ lapel pins. A promotional video released last week, in the ornate style of director Baz Luhrmann and his wife, Catherine Martin (both of whom collaborated on the hotel’s exotic-Deco design), further cultivates Faena’s mystique: the man in the white suit is shown only from behind, walking through the lobby and vanishing behind a column, as if he were an apparition.

Mr. Faena’s flair for the dramatic was on full display at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Faena Forum on Tuesday night. As an insistent wind blew, a well-heeled crowd of art-world muckety-mucks and Miami culturati gathered beneath the building’s carved-out overhang and took in performances by members of the New World Symphony and the Cuban art collective Los Carpinteros. The horn section then launched into Paul Dukas’s “Fanfare pour préceder ‘La Péri,’” a lush ceremonial theme to which Faena descended the Forum’s grand staircase, waving his hands like a conductor.  

Courtesy Jorge Mina

Trailing him were his wife and creative partner, Ximena Caminos; his friend and money man, Len Blavatnik; Koolhass and Shigematsu; and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, who compared Faena quite fittingly to the Wizard of Oz. Levine passed the microphone to Blavatnik. “Creative genius doesn’t exist without business genius,” Blavatnik deadpanned, before acknowledging that the equation works the other way, too. He called the project “extremely unique, perhaps unique in the world,” though Buenos Aires’s Faena District, which Blavatnik also helped finance, might take exception to that. Koolhaas, for his part, extended his congratulations to Blavatnik and Faena for “shifting the gravity of the world to 33rd Street.”

The crowd spiraled up to an amphitheater, where a New World Symphony harpist was playing. Faena, whose all-white outfit—complete with swooping pearl necklace and sash—made him hard to miss, mingled with partygoers including Martha Stewart, Courtney Love, collector Jean Pigozzi, gallerist Vito Schnabel, and megadealer Jeffrey Deitch. Guests then proceeded upward to the Forum’s circular, domed theater and spread out around the stage, sections of which had been carved out for seating. 

Courtesy Patrick McMullan / Getty Images

What followed was Faena’s first dance commission, choreographed by Pam Tanowitz, and performed by Tanowitz’s company and students of the Miami City Ballet. About halfway through, one of the walls was opened, doubling the size of the theater. A reddish glow emanated from the newly revealed space. Faena got up and walked into it, as if into a new dawn. In that moment, he was both honoree and lead performer.

Most impressive of all is how quickly, by architectural standards, the Faena project has come to fruition. It has been less than four years since the developer broke ground on his first Collins Avenue project, the residential tower Faena House. It’s common for major cultural unveilings in Miami to happen just ahead of Art Basel Miami Beach, to take advantage of the crowds and media presence. But at the ribbon cutting, Faena provided an extra reason for the timing, one that revealed his genius for shifting attention to himself: “Today is also my birthday.”

Read more about the highlights and things to do during Art Basel Miami Beach »

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