Argentine hotelier and real estate entrepreneur Alan Faena has teamed up with billionaire Sir Leonard ‘Len’ Blavatnik to create a hotel bearing the Faena name in a Miami district also named after him. Andrew Harris checks in…
‘I am the God of hellfire. And I bring you… FIRE !’ And he did, directly above me, halfway up a giant pyramid, which somebody had decided to build in a field near Glastonbury. Arthur Brown, whose 1968 hit ‘Fire’ lives on even today, was splayed onto a giant flaming cross suddenly illuminating the somnambulant night sky, from which thankfully, he eventually jumped down. The pyramid has endured, of course. As indeed has 75-year-old Arthur, still flirting with public self-immolation on a regular basis.
Last Summer’s Krug Festival – Into The Wild at the Grange in Hampshire, where Californian Orange Sunshine was replaced by pale yellow, effervescent fermented grape juice from Eastern France as the drug of choice, was where you’d find the current fire-god Francis Mallman performing. The feted Patagonian pyromaniac super chef was the star turn, presiding with his brigade of chefs over enormous pits of fire all hours of the day and night. Although it’s amidst the warm evening winds whipping around the terrace of Los Fuegos, his restaurant in the stunning Faena Hotel on Miami Beach, that I settle down to see what all the fiery fuss is about.
Mallman’s choice of the Faena for his first venture outside South America is not altogether coincidental. Fellow Argentine, Alan Faena, shares a similarly eclectic approach to the hospitality industry. With his partner, Ukrainian-born American Len Blavatnik, (number two on the 2017 Sunday Times Rich List), Faena is building on the success of their earlier collaboration regenerating the Buenos Aires docklands, where a template for incorporating outlets of cultural expression into successful property development was first drawn up. In Miami, this has involved the purchase of six entire blocks of run-down beachfront, and the deployment of over a billion dollars, resulting in what is now the Faena District, the only one apart from the Art Deco District, with such officially sanctioned nomenclature.
A large non-profit performance space, Faena Forum, designed by rock star architect Rem Koolhaas, kicked off with a celebrity-speckled fundraiser by Madonna. The historic former Atlantic Beach Hotel will reopen as the Faena Bazaar, an as yet unspecified, retail space, and a revamped Spanish style guest house, Casa Claridges, is now rechristened Casa Faena. A Norman Foster-designed residential tower, Faena House, that Goldman Sachs human gold mine, Lloyd Blankfein and art dealing supremo Larry Gagosian have bought into, has already set a Miami price record of $60 million for an apartment.
But the jewel in this previously swamp-ridden real estate crown is the Faena Hotel. Originally the Saxony, a 1950s rat pack hangout, its rescue from ruin, has been by the most beautifully bizarre sleight of hand. While it’s difficult at times, not to be reminded of another aspiring hotelier with an irrepressible tendency to name everything after himself (currently resident in the White House), similarities begin and end there. I don’t see ‘The Donald’ going for an Alberto Garutti chandelier whose 792 light bulbs flash every time lightning strikes the Pampas, let alone Damian Hirst’s gilded 10,000-year-old woolly mammoth presiding over the pool in its hurricane-proof glass case. Mind you, what might Damian do with Donald’s already gilded hurricane-proof hair-do?
As for the choice of interior designer, the creative chaos of Moulin Rouge director, Baz Luhrmann, could probably only be unleashed on an unsuspecting luxury hotel by Alan Faena. And it was. Luhrmann’s affinity for Miami was already evident from the flowery shirted gangster poses of Romeo and Juliet when he’d stayed with Gianni Versace at his South Beach mansion to write the movie. Together with Catherine Martin, his set- designer wife, he has successfully channelled his trademark flamboyance, probably at times careering dangerously close to kitsch, into a building of mesmerising elegance.
Faena’s avant-garde inclinations though are very much in sync with the Miami zeitgeist and the city’s increasing relevance to the international art market, currently turning over around $50 billion annually. Miami is now one of three global staging posts for Art Basel, the biggest contemporary art event in America. In less capable hands, Blavatnik’s billions could be blown away into a garish Vegas-style fug, but their partnership has a history, and with the Faena District, undoubtedly a future.
High art meets high-end hospitality right over the hotel threshold. Instead of confronting a bank of reception desks, one is ushered into La Catedral, a cavernous space covered in Juan Gatti murals and little else apart from huge gold leaf columns holding it all up. Through the glass wall at the other end, the mammoth glints enticingly in the Florida sunshine. Those more inclined toward Howard Johnson than Howard Hodgkin might consider backing out at this stage, though they’d be making a massive misjudgement. The creative crowd may well feel that Faena has produced a pleasure palace especially for them to cavort in, but the operation is so well executed, non-citizens of that rarefied universe are also made to feel extremely comfortable. The check-in desks were hiding around the corner all the time. They just wanted to be found, that’s all.
There are 169 rooms and suites, all with personal butler service. Mr Faena likes red and gold, while Mr Lurhmann has a bit of a thing about big cat print, which all sounds more Cage Aux Folles than cutting-edge cool, but the rooms have responded as intended to this onslaught of top-drawer discernment, and look appropriately gorgeous. Edgy elements are kept under control by an overall allure that’s rounded and warm. Spacious design led bathrooms and wall-to-wall views over the beach, complete the aura of arty opulence.
Unsurprisingly, in an environment where culture and creativity continually crave attention, the hotel has its own cabaret size theatre. It’s hosted Elvis in its previous incarnation, and Bon Jovi in the present one. The spa, Tierra Santa, stands apart even in a place where pampering the wealthy has been a part of the landscape since Al Capone, and his entourage would flop into the Biltmore Hotel, in search of restorative respite from Chicago shootouts. Although the killing of Lucky Luciano associate, Fatty Walsh, one hot-tempered hot Miami night was probably closer to the prohibition era’s concept of bodywork. Proffering therapies and treatments created in collaboration with Faena’s personal shaman, Tierra Santa projects an overall South American orientation. The imposing and atmospheric hammam, however (the largest in Miami), is designed in a more traditional Islamic style around a large heated central slab of semi-precious amazonite. It is the go-to destination for soporific self-indulgence.
With two of the world’s foremost architects deployed to ‘dance a tango’, as Faena put it, and a boundary-pushing Hollywood director setting the scene, oversight of the Faena’s kitchens was never likely to be entrusted to Delia Smith. The first-floor restaurant, Pao by Paul Qui, with another imposing Damian Hirst as its centrepiece, is helmed by America’s leading contender in the ‘talented but tainted’ chef stakes. Qui, a Texan Filipino, and acknowledged uber-artisan of Asian fusion, has a well-documented disposition toward drugs and aggression that makes Gordon Ramsay look like the Sugar Plum Fairy. The good news though, is that following his arrest for assault last year, he’s been immersed in a period of contrition and creativity that’s currently generating some of his best work. Any opportunity to catch that particular wave from Pao’s seriously sumptuous setting overlooking the ocean, should not be missed.
In the fire down below, at Los Fuegos on the ground floor, Francis Mallman also comes with a suitably unsuitable CV. His formative years were spent as a wandering hippy (Character-building stuff! Maybe he also wandered into Arthur Brown’s prototype Burning Man). He honed his craft, like many before, in the great kitchens of France, where he’s just opened his latest restaurant at Villa La Coste in Provence, eventually adapting the open fire cooking techniques of Patagonia into what is undoubtedly a prodigious gastronomic talent. Based on an island in the middle of an isolated, wi-fi-free Argentinian lake, with six children from four different women, a tendency to recite poetry over the pot roast, and a disparaging approach to the world of top-flight international cuisine, of which he is now an integral part… this is of course, Faena’s kind of cuisinier. Mine too, as I get to grips with a twelve-hour slow cooked short rib from the wood oven, which, rumour has it, might be on the menu in Mayfair soon.
Miami is a metropolis with a pronounced ability to keep reinventing itself. South Beach seems to have had its stylish moment in the sun, yet parties on as an art deco Benidorm with a Brooklyn accent. The current incarnation is as the capital of creative cool, where street artists of the hip and happening Wynwood district, coalesce into mutually coveted coexistence with the mammoth-collecting Masters of the Universe in the Faena District. Art for art’s sake: and now with Alan Faena’s spectacular new visitors’ gallery from which to take it all in.