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The World of Alan Faena

The Argentinian hotel and cultural impresario taps Baz Luhrmann and his wife, Catherine Martin, to revamp the storied Saxony Hotel, the cornerstone of his ambitious new urban-development project.

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Amid the tumult of last year’s Art Basel Miami Beach, one event stood out for Baz Luhrmann: an asado, or outdoor barbecue, hosted by Alan Faena, the Argentinian hotelier, and his wife and collaborator, Ximena Caminos.

“Miami, especially during Art Basel, is very intense, very noisy, very in-your-face,” says Luhrmann, the Australian film director of Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby. “And what I thought was quite inspiring about the asado was that Alan and Ximena managed to create a respite from the madness. The beautiful garden, the amazing food, the art decoration, the wind blowing, the interesting people coming and going all day—it was distinctly different from what was going on in the rest of Miami and yet it still felt connected.”

Come mid-2015, Faena will again offer something novel to Miami, with the opening of Faena Hotel Miami Beach, part of an ambitious new urban development on a sleepy stretch of Mid Beach that blurs the boundaries between culture, real estate, art and design.

Spanning six blocks that run across Collins Avenue, from the ocean to the canal by Indian Creek Drive, Faena District Miami Beach, or the Faena District as it has already come to be known, is arguably the most far-reaching and talked-about new development in construction-crazed Miami.

The initial buzz for the self-contained, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood centered on Faena House, an 18-story beachfront condominium created by Foster + Partners (the firm led by renowned architect Norman Foster), whose curvilinear design brings to mind a luxury cruise liner.

The 47 units in the landmark building, ranging in price from $2.5 million to $50 million for the duplex penthouse, sold to high-profile bidders including Goldman Sachs Group chief executive officer Lloyd Blankfein, Apollo Global Management cofounder Leon Black and art dealer Larry Gagosian.

Not surprisingly, the hype surrounding the development has increased as it has grown in scope, with Faena and his principal investors, including the Ukrainian-born, Harvard-educated Len Blavatnik, gobbling up beachside real estate with the zeal of latter-day Pac-Men. In addition to Faena House, the district will now comprise the Faena Arts Center and artist residences; a park, marina and luxury bazaar; and a state-of-the-art parking garage—all located across the street and designed by Rem Koolhaas’s firm, OMA.

Faena also tapped Foster + Partners to design a new residential tower on the site of the Versailles Hotel, which sits on one side of Faena House and will be redeveloped. But it was the appointment of Luhrmann and his wife, the four-time Academy Award–winning set and costume designer Catherine Martin—or Bazmark, as their company is known—to revamp the gutted but historic Saxony Hotel, and to have a hand in most of the visual and experiential aspects of the project, that really signaled Faena’s intention to transform the whole neighborhood into a new cultural epicenter.

“We are not just creating beautiful architecture and design,” says Faena, who is perhaps best known for having transformed the similarly dormant Puerto Madero area of Buenos Aires into a vibrant, high-rent cultural and entertainment hub. Faena is in New York for meetings with Luhrmann and Martin, and is wearing his signature loose white tunic shirt and trousers, topped off by a white fedora. “We are creating a world for art and culture to exist on a daily basis,” he says, “a place to tell stories that elevate the city. And Baz and Catherine are visionary storytellers. A hotel is a dream machine, you know. This hotel will make you dream.”

Luhrmann and Martin, who actually lived in Miami when they were working on the script for Romeo + Juliet 20 years ago, approached their latest creative adventure as they would a movie. “It’s exactly the same,” says Luhrmann, “in that we have to be process-driven and start with intensive research. Obviously, we went back to the history of Florida and the hotel itself. You know, the Saxony was the first-ever luxury hotel in Miami, and the first one with air-conditioning and an elevator on the outside of the building. We interviewed the son of George Sax, who owned the original Saxony, and got a lot of the key elements of the narrative of the place from him, and then amplified it.”

(According to Caminos, not that much amplifying was necessary, as Sax’s son was an entertaining but unreliable storyteller who claimed, for instance, that Evita went to Miami on her way to Cuba to get treatment for cancer—an assertion that flies in the face of what is known about the spiritual leader of Argentina.)

Though Luhrmann and Martin see their work on the Saxony as an exercise in genre, there was a learning curve. “There’s a lot of science that’s hidden in the way a hotel works,” says Luhrmann. “It’s a bit backstage, onstage. And that’s been actually quite an enjoyable part of it, because now we’ll never walk into a hotel room and see it the same again.”

Then there were the limitations of the hotel itself, which has amazing views and is on the widest strip of sand of Miami Beach but is a mishmash of styles, including International architecture at the front and late Deco at the back. “The spaces within the Saxony have challenging proportions,” explains Martin, “and as the first air-conditioned building, the volumes had to be constructed in a certain way so that they could keep the rooms cold, so maximizing space was not the easiest.”

Martin continues: “Alan and Ximena wanted the project to be very true to the DNA of the building, and they both said that they didn’t want it to feel like a renovation, that if someone walked into the room they would feel like it had been there since 1947. Now, the realities of 1947 and what we are doing now are miles apart. But the idea was that you would walk in and immediately have a sense of history. And that within that honesty of the space, everything would grow out from there.”

An early tour of the site revealed a Deco curve in the back of the building that became an important architectural detail that’s been applied to the rooms and corridors. The cathedral, or long corridor of the Faena Hotel Buenos Aires, inspired a similar grand passageway from the entrance of the lobby to the pool and dining areas, offering what may be the only public space in Miami with an uninterrupted view of the beach. Similarly, an image of one of Faena’s houses, in the Argentinian countryside, featuring a pantry that was painted blue on the outside and red on the inside, served as inspiration for the hotel’s dominant color scheme.

“I saw that,” recalls Martin,“and I thought, Ah, that’s the Faena red and the blue of the ocean. And on the front of the Saxony building, there is a beautiful pale turquoise blue that also became a kind of styling point. These colors became the counterpoints to play with in terms of the soft furnishings in the room.”

Martin says that the rooms themselves will feature an eclectic mix of old and new, including a large amount of antique and vintage furniture, which will form part of the design dialogue.

According to Caminos, it’s exactly that mix of Latin-inflected 1940s glamour and her husband’s aggressively modern point of view that makes the allure of the Saxony and the site-specific urban installation they are creating border on the occult.

“I think there are places that are dead spaces and there are spaces that are alive,” says Caminos. “And one of the things that Alan talks a lot about is how certain spaces allow magic to happen. There are certain spaces that have an inherent power to them, where you walk in and they can be as humble or over the top, it doesn’t matter—they have a quality to them that inspires you and makes you feel connected to something special.”

Adds Faena: “This area is like Baz said about the asado we made. It’s like a refuge for the people that really want to enjoy the beach, great service, a fabulous theater, incredible food and retail. So it’s a one-of-a-kind hotel in that it’s very, very unique. And in Miami, the truth is that there are no hotels like that.”

Bazmark on Hotel Design

Baz Luhrmann and wife Catherine Martin check in to a hotel every Saturday night, regardless of what city they are in. We asked them what makes for a great hotel experience.

BL: If design is successful, it’s effortless. You’re sitting in a room, you’re sitting on a leather couch and someone brings you something to drink, you feel like you’re in a home. I mean, that’s the number one thing. You’re sort of in someone’s home. You feel invisibly cared for—there’s an invisible hand always there to catch you. What you don’t realize, of course, is how much heavy lifting and science goes into creating that illusion.

CM: Alan and Ximena often use the word “elegant.” And I often use that word in design. I say, It’s not an elegant solution, because usually when a design solution is good, it’s simple, and it goes back to the authentic center. We’re not looking to make a mark in terms of decor; we’re trying to make a mark in terms of the experience you have within the space. In a sense, everything is all terribly simple at the end of the day. It’s stuff like being able to plug the phone and computer in next to each other without having to bash in your head. Having the things that you need to be comfortable and practical—that to me is good hotel design.

The Dream Team

In addition to Luhrmann and Martin, three other design stars are contributing to the Faena District.

Raymond Jungles
In what is most likely his final commercial project, the redoubtable Miami-based Jungles is doing the landscaping for the entire project, connecting the work of Foster + Partners, OMA and Bazmark for an intrinsic indoor/outdoor connectivity.

Studio Job
The pioneering, Antwerp-based design duo of Nynke and Job Smeets, whose work combines extreme craftsmanship and ornamentation, have created gates, fountains and heraldry based on a suite of graphics they designed to reflect Faena’s core values.

The L.A.-based design and engineering firm, led by founder Jim Garland, specializes in water design. Across the Faena District, Fluidity is enhancing public spaces, particularly the pools in the Faena House lobby and grounds, with features that riff on the movement and music of water.


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