Buenos Aires’ Faena Hotel & Universe


When Alan Faena, an Argentine fashion-impresario-turned-real-estate-developer, first approached French architect Philippe Starck, the Buenos Aries quarter of Puerto Moreno was a run-down warehouse area at the edge of downtown. That was in 2003. Since then, Faena’s vision and the pair’s combined sense of style and design have turned Puerto Moreno into the city’s hot neighbourhood, booming with hotels, fashionable boutiques, art galleries and luxury high-rise condos.

A universe of Hotel Design

Alan Faena and Philippe Starck turned an abandoned brick grain warehouse into a hotel that mixes Belle Epoque opulence with edgy modern design and technology. The fancifully-named Hotel Faena + Universe offers guests a universe of amenities, including an on-site tango cabaret theatre and the only La Prarie spa in South America. There’s also a huge outdoor heated swimming pool, one of the few in Buenos Aires, and a spacious outdoor garden. Both are hidden from street traffic and its noise by tall brick walls, making them popular spots for corporate events and product marketing launches and parties, as well as a fashionable after-work singles scene. An urban resort within a bustling city, the hotel indeed feels like a separate universe.


An exclusive experience

There is no front desk and no concierge, reflecting Faena’s determination to make his hotel the polar opposite of traditional addresses for the rich and famous, such as Buenos Aires’ classic Alvear Palace. Instead, each guest is assigned an “Experience Manager” at the time a reservation is made. This is a concierge, personal assistant and butler rolled into one, a guide who looks after every aspect of a guest’s stay from arranging airport pick-ups, to supervising room check-ins, organizing private tango lessons or setting up visits to local artists’ ateliers. As an extra personal touch, guests are given a cell phone to use within the hotel for a one-touch connection to their Experience Manager. The system works efficiently except when the guest’s assigned manager is not on duty.

This is Faena’s first hotel, but not Starck’s, who changed the industry with his designs for former nightclub impresario Ian Schrager. That partnership included retrofitting old office buildings in New York City into the edgy and modern Royalton, Hudson and Paramount hotels, as well as creating the Delano in Miami’s South Beach, the Mondrian in Los Angeles and the Clift in San Francisco. The Faena shares the same general business plan – designing a scene where the hip, trendy, famous, fashionable and wealthy want to see and be seen.

Finding a balance between opulence and minimalism

While Schrager and Starck share a minimalist, modernist sensibility, Faena certainly does not. It would have been interesting to sit in on the design discussions between Faena and Starck that resulted in the textured mix of sleek modern and tactile old-fashioned. And Faena’s influence on Starck is clearly evident in the hotels he has decorated since, including Schrager’s Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City, a property known for its soft and opulent feel.

Admittedly, the Hotel Faena + Universe is not for everybody, certainly not for guests most comfortable with a traditional hotel ambience. Except for the masculine ‘clubhouse’ décor in one of the restaurants, the lobby bar and the living room of one suite, everything is adorned exclusively in rich reds and blazing whites, mirrors and crystal chandeliers (including an extravagant and unusual colour-free Murano glass chandelier in the bathroom of one of the penthouse suites). In the 105 oversized rooms and suites, most internal walls are covered with thousands of yards of thick velvet floor-to-ceiling draperies that open and close at the touch of a button, their deep red tones echoing the ruby shade of Argentina’s famed Malbec wines. The colour scheme extends to the rest of the room as well; white leather armchairs and tables are offset by red carpeting and red leather banquettes. Even the cabinet drawers and the closets in the dressing area are lined in red.

This old-world opulence lives alongside high-tech touches, like the large-screen TV and audio components hidden inside clever, custom-designed rotating mirrored consoles. No doors open or close them; just spin the unit around to use or hide the electronics, or position it to reflect a particular view. Beds are not pushed against a wall but dominate the centre of the bedroom and feature specially-designed headboards where controls for the drapes and home theatre system are found. The concept isn’t flawless, however – the design is sleek, but the controls are in an inconvenient location that forces guests to get out of bed to turn out the lights.

F marks the spot

Some of the bathrooms have walls of glass which can be closed for privacy by yet more remote-controlled red velvet draperies. If guests choose to leave them open, the view is of the city’s skyline or a park across the street, and from the upper floors, the Rio de la Plata just beyond. Alan Faena also created a signature modern floral scent used both as a room fragrance and in the private-label bathroom amenities imprinted with the ubiquitous red “F” logo. The amenities are not just full-sized, they are extravagantly over-sized, including a fragrance candle in a red cut glass tumbler.

There are 70 rooms and 38 suites, including the two-bedroom F Suite featuring a cathedral-ceiling living area panelled in rich cherry wood. The Imperial suite offers stunning views of both sunrise and sunset from its two terraces on opposite sides of the building. But the grandest is the triplex Tower Suite, a favourite of honeymooners with its romantic river and park views from the top floor bedroom. Windows dominate three of the four walls, and there is a room-sized bathroom on the middle floor. This fantasy space includes a two-person marble tub next to a window and fanciful swan-shaped water spouts on the marble double sinks.

A space for every taste

The bright and airy rooms contrast with the dimly lit brick-walled lobby corridor. This is a soaring three-storey space, called The Cathedral, with an 80-meter-long central hallway lined with restaurants and shops, including the warm and welcoming Le Mercado, a casual restaurant decorated with Oriental carpets, Argentine gaucho artifacts, deeply stuffed leather and upholstered chairs, and a menu designed to satisfy Argentinians’ love of their own fabulous beef. The Library Lounge bar area is similarly masculine and clubby. The polar opposite of this laid-back atmosphere is the precise and otherworldly El Bistro gourmet restaurant. Red and white – Faena’s favorite colour combination – is used throughout the restaurant. The blaze of white from thefloor, walls, seating and tablecloths is punctuated by theruby red Baccarat crystal stemware and the red rug area beneath each pure white table. Full-size unicorn heads – white, of course – decorate the walls.

The visionary

Faena himself is unmistakable in his signature white suit or linen pants and shirt (depending on the season), often with a red scarf about his neck, patrolling the lobby area, checking on the well-being of his guests, many of whom he greets by name.

The hotel is located between downtown and the Bohemian arts neighbourhood San Telmo, and Faena has grandly renamed the entire district the Faena Art District. Admittedly, his upscale hotel and the high-rise construction it spurred also created the market for upscale art galleries and fashion boutiques. Faena describes it as “a constantly evolving work of art, geared to improving the way we live in a city”. “Because we are aiming to create an urban focus for experiencing and practising new models of living, we have chosen one of the world’s most fascinating cities in which to imagine and build, detail by detail, a space that anticipates and meets the spiritual and material needs of the inhabitants of the future,” he says. Those material needs include another retrofitted warehouse across the street from the hotel, also developed by Faena, with luxury condo apartments.

Choose your indulgence

All of the six Experience Managers can organize personalized tours of the city’s antiques shops, flea markets and art galleries, or a Polo Experience at one of the world-famous Argentine matches. A customized day with Argentina’s famous photographer Aldo Sessa is another possibility, which includes a hard-to-get visit to his studio and workshop and the opportunity to tour the city with him, photographing alongside him. When I asked my own Experience Manager for suggestions for a tango milonga, he had a typed list delivered to my room within minutes, attached to a hand-written note on thick notepaper monogrammed with the hotel’s red “F” logo, offering to call a taxi whenever I wanted to leave the hotel. It’s a hard place to leave, even for the tango, since the hotel’s own dinner theatre, El Cabaret (a place full of Belle Epoque red leather sofas, gold and red leather chairs), has nightly shows, and performers can be booked for private tango lessons in the afternoon. A second theatre, El Teatro, has nightly jazz and other performances in an intimate setting. A black granite staircase leads from the Cabaret to the cellar, which boasts more than 5,000 Argentine wines stacked along the brick walls. The space is used for private dinners and wine tastings.

The expansive La Prarie Spa on the second floor is the first Buenos Aries spa with a ‘hamman’, a Turkish-style marble dry heat room. The couples’ treatment room has a marble Jacuzzi behind a wall of romantic candles, and there is a room with a futon-like floor mat for Shiatsu and Thai massage. Since this is the top spa in the city, it is popular with local residents, especially at weekends, when locals compete with hotel guests for appointments.

Since opening in 2004, Hotel Faena + Universe has won numerous international awards, including “Best Hotel for Ambience & Design” by Conde Nast UK in 2007, and the selection of El Bistro as one of the world’s “Ten Greatest Hotel Restaurants” by Hotels Magazine USA, also in 2007. Celebrities such as Liza Minelli are regular visitors.

High season is from mid-September to mid-March – Argentina’s seasons are the reverse of Europe and North America’s. Reservations should be made at least two or three months in advance for the peak spring and summer months.