MIAMI — It sneaks up on you slowly as you emerge from a patch of low-slung 1970s apartment buildings toward the beach. This once-forgotten strip of Collins Avenue is called Mid-Beach, but it’s currently morphing into Miami’s hottest neighborhood, re-Christened the Faena District .
What’s most intriguing about the emerging Faena District is that it eschews the predictable script of a downtrodden neighborhood slowly waking up like a real estate Rip Van Winkle. Most areas come back once a sprinkling of galleries and restaurants gradually appear. However this town-within-a-town makeover is the vision of one man (with a lot of artistic and architectural assistance).
Argentinian hotel impresario Alan Faena and business partner Len Blavatnik bought all the real estate on the stretch of Collins Ave. that runs from 32nd Street to 36th Street and reimagined it as a cultural playground where people come for a taste of old Miami glamour, with a luxury price tag.
“I am a storyteller,” Faena said. “I know how to tell a story and to bring something new to the world.”
When it’s completed, the $1.2 billion project will encompass the Faena Hotel Miami Beach (which opened late last year), an 18-story Foster + Partners-designed condominium tower called Faena House, a drum-shaped performing arts center designed by Rem Koolhass/OMA called Faena Forum, two adjacent condo towers called Faena Versailles, a beachside guest house, and Faena Bazaar, a retail space also designed by Koolhaas.
It was a real-life game of Monopoly as Blavatnik and Faena bought up the Collins Ave. properties and started to bring their vision to life. He was wildly successful with a similar transformation in Argentina.
“For me a hotel alone doesn’t have the power to make change in the city,” Faena said. “I pooled all these great minds to work together to create a place in one of the most important American cities that will be hopefully be a cultural center in the city. Not only in the city, but in the world.”
Many buildings in the district are still under construction, but it’s already made headlines. The penthouse of Faena House sold for $60 million last year, making it the most expensive home in Florida.
Although he’s collaborated with designers, architects, artists, and even a movie director and costume designer for this new Miami neighborhood, the district is clearly the vision of one man. Alan Faena is a charming, larger-than-life figure who favors ensembles of white linen topped with feather-adorned broad rim straw hats. He regularly references that his goal is to create a neighborhood filled with transformative experiences.
If the retro-fitted 1940s Faena Miami Beach Hotel (formerly the Saxony) is any indication of what’s to come, then Faena will be one of the most well-curated, imaginative, and phantasmagorical neighborhoods on the East Coast.
When you enter the hotel, you’re not in the lobby, you’re in a stately entryway called the cathedral. The walls are covered with murals from Argentinian painter Juan Gatti, and the vast room is lined with gold-leaf pillars. Continue walking outside and you come face-to-tusk with Damien Hirst’s $18 million 24-karat gilded wooly mammoth skeleton sculpture. Check-in is off to the side. The idea is that you don’t enter a busy, stressful lobby, but a calm, artistic space that sets the tone for your stay.
To create his escapist and luxury lodging tone, Faena collaborated with Australian director Baz Luhrmann and his Academy Award-winning costume designer wife Catherine Martin. Having directed movies such as “The Great Gatsby,” and “Moulin Rouge!,” Luhrmann has a background in creating fantasy worlds. Parts of the hotel could have come directly from Luhrmann films, such as a cabaret theater that feels as if it were plucked right out of “Moulin Rouge!”
“I really wanted some of the most talented people I could find to work on the project with me,” said Faena, who could pass as a character from a Luhrmann film. “I always admired Baz and Catherine. They not only know only how to tell the story, but they look at the design of the story, the design of the scenery, and the music, so we have a lot in common.”
The hotel is filled with dramatic staircases, innovative chandeliers, grand art, and bold hues that meld old Hollywood with Miami’s monied, jet-set salad days. Everything from the museum-worthy art instillations to the world-famous chefs (such as Francis Mallman) in the hotel’s restaurants, to the pillow cases embroidered with Faena’s trademark hat are used to tell his story.
“This kind of old Miami is very important. It’s forgotten,” he said. “I almost feel a responsibility to bring some of that back through this project.”
FAENA HOTEL MIAMI BEACH, 3201 Collins Ave., 305-534-880, www.faena.com. Rates from $745 and up.Christopher muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.