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The Argentina Independent invites you to walk the shadowy corridors of the imagination on an alternative tour of Buenos Aires’ most exclusive designer hotel.
A doorman beckons you in through towering glass doors. Upon entering, the scene opens out on to a hallucinogenic 80-metre long hallway draped in gold curtains. As you step on to the blood-red carpet underfoot, you become aware of a soundtrack playing in the background.
A film begins to roll in which you are the protagonist. Welcome to The Faena Hotel and Universe.
As you continue, the sun streams into the hall through high windows, forming patterns of light across the floor. You look out of the first window to see the infinity pool, lined with symmetrical rows of sun-loungers. A blonde girl suns herself in the humid heat and you recognise her to be the daughter of your London publisher. A man approaches her and leans down to kiss her. They converse for a moment in French and then he turns as if to look straight at you.
Finding yourself hovering precariously on the border between being the watcher and the watched, you slip back into the shadows. If you stay quietly in the background for long enough perhaps you will be able to incorporate everything you see into your next novel.
That night, disguised in a suit and moustache you enter the library lounge into 1930s rural Argentina – the time of the Belle Epoque. Deer’s heads adorn the wall and leather chairs evoke the sophistication and opulence of a Pampas Estancia. You are an Estanciero, a ranch owner getting rich off the back of the Argentine agricultural boom, and looking forward to your country’s prosperous future. You sip champagne and glance at your handsome reflection in the polished walls.
After a few glasses though, you begin to feel rather woozy and go to compose yourself in the bathroom. You wash your face in the sink, yet as you do you notice that the taps are silver swans necks, spewing out water through their shiny beaks. Your face has become rather blurred and unrecognisable in the mirror. You begin to suspect that someone slipped something in your drink.
This notion seems further confirmed as you enter a bistro with dizzyingly symmetrical white tables. On the walls lines of white unicorn’s heads emerge and follow your every movement with ruby red eyes. The couple that was by the pool earlier is dining in one corner, now dressed completely in white. You sit opposite, although now, strangely, your legs don’t seem to reach the ground and, glancing down, you realise to your shock and embarrassment that you are a young girl. You look around in panic and see a white rabbit with a waistcoat disappearing out of the bistro back into the main corridor. Thinking he may be a key to your current confusion you decide to follow, muttering: ‘curiouser and curiouser’.
The rabbit disappears into another door. You follow and enter a dark, intimate space entirely enclosed by red velvet curtains and lit by spotlights. Now you are faced with an old style cabaret. You hover behind the audience, and wait patiently for an alluring singer, Dorothy Vallens, to enter the stage and enchant you with her tragic rendition of ‘Blue Velvet’. You look around nervously, attempting to locate Frank, the gangland villain whom you suspect is holding Dorothy’s husband and child hostage. You are quite sure he is watching from a smokey corner.
The show begins. It is tango. You are no longer in Lumberton but back in Buenos Aires, although the music is no less heart wrenchingly melancholic than in David Lynch’s underworld hangouts.
Later, on the way to your room, the lines between fantasy and reality continue to lapse back into confusion as shadowy rows of identical doors make you suspect you may not be in the Faena after all, but The Overlook Hotel from ‘The Shining’. You quicken your pace to avoid encountering the unhinged Jack, or any of the apparitions that may have possessed him or his young son.
As the door clicks behind you, you are relieved to make it back to safety, despite the looming possibility that the real threat actually lurks inside your own imagination. You carefully put away your props for the night – the novel manuscript, moustache, the suit, the little girl’s dress and the rabbit – and try to relax.
You fumble with the bedside panel to dim the lights ready for sleep. But by mistake you press a button that draws back the velvet curtains, revealing new parts of the room, other stage sets upon which action might unfold. You turn up and down the lighting, changing the space from period drama set to murder mystery to bright romantic comedy.
Once again the boundaries of fantasy and reality blur further as you realise that you are not simply the actor, but are now in control of your own stage set.
As a guest of the Faena do you choose to create a romance, a thriller, or a comedy? The colour codes of the interiors seem to hold many possibilities: a red backdrop could create passion and struggle in your plot. The abundance of gold could be a precursor to a story of wealth and riches (and anything to do with the Faena will inevitably involve that). Or maybe the white element could be the spiritual dimension you need to rescue your addled mind with the promise of salvation?
Okay, so you are not the voyeuristic novelist from François Ozon’s ‘The Swimming Pool’. Neither are you an Estanciero, Alice in Wonderland, Jeffrey Beaumont or any other movie character for that matter. But the point is that the Faena is not just a hotel, but a stage set for a trip into imagination. Its creators, Philip Starck and Alan Faena are more like ‘scenographers’, having created a film set on which the guests can perform.
The reasoning for their approach reads like an inspirational manifesto or even religious sermon: “Imagination is a powerful force. It is governed by the will for change; it frees the mind from the bonds that tie it down, breaks down the obstacles in its way and leaves behind all fears by transforming them into passion. Our freedom is the exact measure of our imagination.”
The boundaries of this ‘freedom’ may also depend on your bank balance however, with rates at the hotel beginning at US$500 per night. Yet once inside the universe, with all its facilities and diversions, who would ever need to leave and enter the real city outside? Inside the hotel complex, you could happily immerse yourself in ever deeper folds of fantasy endlessly.
For such an internationally renowned hotel, and one where imagination could take you anywhere, the Faena concept is actually very much rooted in Argentine identity. Not only is much of the design inspired by Argentine style and history, but the very idea of being whisked away by impossible flights of illusion is something endemic in the national character. After all, this is a country whose name (referring to argentum – silver) bears witness to the illusory promise of a precious metal boom, and whose residents frequently express wistful nostalgic projections for other continents and eras.
Think of nearby San Telmo, which evokes a sense of longing for a lost time, with its tango bars and cobbled streets, posters of Carlos Gardel and Eva Peron. The Faena takes inspiration from this theatrical nostalgia, cramming the walls of its mercado with icons and antiques from the barrio’s feria.
Unlike San Telmo however, cartoneros, homeless people or political graffiti do not appear in the fantasy bubble of Alan Faena’s Art District. Its creators unashamedly create a space in which to imagine another Argentina away from such reminders of disenchantment and pessimism, saying: “We wanted to give back to Buenos Aires that magnificent lustre that it had once radiated, bringing the spaces and a stage to define that splendid past into the present, to inhabit them once again and bring them back to life.”
And yet the economic tragedies of recent years are woven into the very fabric of the hotel. The creators faced the real drama of constructing it during the economic crisis of 2001/2. The building schedule was inevitably delayed, as Faena continued with the challenge of commissioning artisans and craftspeople in a time when Argentine industry was under crushing pressure. Every detail, from the industrial brick to gold leaf china cups, then, tells a story encompassing both the country’s past, and its present.
The ‘El Porteño’ building, as the hotel is also known, began its life as an old grain silo, itself a symbol of the boom and the subsequent decline of the agricultural industry as it lay derelict. Using the shell of this already potent symbol, Starck and Faena created a stage set for a revival of the Belle Epoque spirit of 1930s booming Argentina, with a large helping of kitsch fantasy in the mix. They saw in El Porteño Building ‘…not a symbol of unfulfilled potential, but a wondrous possibility of transforming reality by turning it into a vision, a desire, a dream’.
Alan Faena is planning more buildings, cultural centres and residencies along the same lines, in his ‘Art District’, culminating in the domination of a huge block of Puerto Madero. The dream visions of the Faena hotel and sister developments are already inserting themselves into the narrative of a forever unfolding movie set in the present day. Mirage or reality, watch this space.