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Faena Hotel, Buenos Aires

Parisian elegance meets Latin exuberance in the heart of Argentina's thriving capital.

At night the pool's a cool place for drinks.
PHOTO: Javier Pierini
By John Cantrell

Everything you've heard about Buenos Aires is true. An intoxicating cocktail of a city—one part Parisian elegance and two parts Latin exuberance—it's vibrant, sophisticated, seductive and, since the devaluation of the peso in 2001, either relatively or shockingly cheap, depending on whether you shop for international or local labels while there.

But until the eighty-three-room Faena Hotel & Universe debuted, in March, Argentina's cosmopolitan capital lacked a luxury hotel that captured the city's old-world, new-glamour vibe; at the top B.A. lodgings, the atmosphere tends toward the timeless rather than the timely. The Alvear Palace, which opened in 1932, is a 210-room grand hotel in the manner of grand hotels everywhere, its lobby awash in marble and top-hatted doormen; the 165-room Four Seasons, which opened in 2001, is a great hotel in the style of all its parent company's smooth and civilized properties. Located in the city's Recoleta neighborhood, akin to New York's Upper East Side, both exude good taste and propriety.

The Faena is not only staking out a different clientele—younger and more design conscious—but drawing it to an altogether different part of this vast city, home to 13 million porteños, as residents are called. Twenty minutes by taxi from the Recoleta, the Puerto Madero area once served as the country's main port; as recently as the 1990s, it was largely abandoned, and a canal still divides most of the neighborhood from central B.A. Here the Faena's creators—its Argentine namesake, Alan Faena, a former fashion entrepreneur; his financial partners (including Austin Hearst, whose family's Hearst Corporation publishes T&C Travel); and Philippe Starck, the maverick French designer—have spent four years turning a massive grain warehouse into a seven-story destination unto itself (the "universe" of the project's name). The $35 million venture, which also includes eighty-five apartments, is one of a series of buildings the investors are developing in Puerto Madero at an estimated cost of more than $100 million.

Once you've arrived, a short walkway at one end of the structure takes you to a narrow slit of a door. Pass through it and you're in a soaring block-long lobby with a single blood-red carpet running straight down its center, runwaylike, and cascades of gold curtains shimmering along its tall spotlighted walls. The effect is house of fashion meets house of worship, so if you feel tempted to kneel and pray...well, the space is named La Catedral. Along this axis you'll find both of the hotel's restaurants, plus a lounge-bar, which gives onto the pool, and a nightclub-cabaret. What you won't find is a reception desk; instead, an "experience manager" (no clerks, either) registers you in the lounge or in a curtained area near the elevators. Upstairs the guest rooms bear the maximally minimalist signature of their designer (the furnishings are primarily white, and the bathrooms are glass walled, made private by pulling voluminous curtains). Yet on the main floor, most spaces are grounded in earthier colors and elements (dark leather sofas and hardwood floors in the lounge, vintage photographs and collectibles in El Mercado, the casual restaurant).

The major exception is El Bistro, the Faena's formal restaurant. The floors—and the banquettes, chairs, lamp shades, tablecloths and curtains—are white, made to look even more blindingly so by their contrast with the rich red stemware on the tables, the matching flowers in the center of the space and the blazing ruby eyes of the ten oversized unicorn heads (white, of course) mounted high on the walls. A Surrealist's dream, the decor is Starck at his opulent starkest—his Starckest.

"People love that there's tremendous luxury and elegance but with a young and romantic feel," says New York investor Chris Burch, the prime mover behind the hotel. Adds Hearst, "We didn't think it made sense for guests to come all this way but still have the kind of experience they could in Paris, New York or Chicago. We wanted a distinct atmosphere that is like an adventure, in an environment that feels integrated into Argentine culture."

In the land that gave the world that most theatrical of dances, the tango, the out-of-this-world fantasies of Borges and Cortázar, not to mention Eva Perón, the Faena fits right in—and stands out.

Rooms from $300. 011-54-11-4010-9000; faenahotelanduniverse.com.

Published on 9/1/2005
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