Miami-Dade County

Argentine developer and star designers reshaping mid-Miami Beach

Alan Faena, the Argentine developer-alchemist who stoked the transmutation of Buenos Aires’ derelict Puerto Madero district into real-estate gold, stands chatting on a corner on a desolate stretch of Collins Avenue that’s been leapfrogged by Miami Beach’s rampaging redevelopment.

Someone speeding by might mistake the spindly Faena, who’s garbed head to toe in his trademark white — loose, tunic-like white shirt and trousers, white fedora — for a wayward santero. He’s not.

Faena is the man who aims to singlehandedly turn sleepy mid-Beach into the city’s resplendent new epicenter.

Since he began gobbling up whole city blocks along Collins last year, Faena has engaged in a dizzying contest of Can you top this? with himself.

First he acquired the gutted but landmark oceanfront Saxony Hotel, added the modest Atlantic Beach Hotel across Collins, and hired the hotter-than-hot New York firm of Roman and Williams to design opulent new interiors for the former.

Next he signed up two of the starriest of celebrity architects to design a set of three new buildings that, together with the existing hotels, would constitute what he’s branded as the Faena District Miami Beach: A beachfront condominium by the firm of Britain’s Lord Norman Foster, and, spanning two blocks across Collins, a public cultural center and a robotic parking garage by Rem Koolhaas’ leading-edge Office of Metropolitan Architecture.

The announced asking price for the Faena House’s two-story, 18,000-square-foot penthouse? A neat $50 million.

But he wasn’t done yet.

Last month, Faena and his financial backer, Ukrainian-American billionaire Len Blavatnik, dropped $100 million to buy the adjacent Versailles Hotel, another vacant Collins landmark.

And then he announced the hiring of film director Baz Luhrmann, of Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby fame, and his wife and collaborator Catherine Martin, for a yet-unspecified “creative role’’ at the Faena Saxony Hotel.

“I try to work with the best minds in the world,’’ said Faena, who likens his role as developer to that of a creative director. “I am not a big businessman. This is all about having a dream. I worked hard and had a vision.

“In Puerto Madero we created a neighborhood. Our dream is to do here what we did there. To really create something special. A mix of architecture, of art, of taste, of food.’’

Behind Faena, cranes rise into the sky. The streamlined, 18-story Faena House tower is rising steadily and renovation work is well under way at the Saxony, which had been reduced to a shell when a previous restoration attempt stalled.

The city has approved the OMA designs across the street, which include the conversion of the low-rise Atlantic Beach into an open courtyard building housing upscale shops, as well as an ambitious plan to join both blocks through an underground parking garage and passageway that will run beneath 34th Street, all to be finished by fall 2014, Faena says.

The Beach’s famously finicky planners and historic-preservation officials applaud Faena’s big-picture ambitions. They say they appreciate that Faena will not just resuscitate the Saxony — whose architecture marked the shift from Art Deco to the resort modernism of the Beach’s famed mid-century hotels — but supplement it with an ensemble of sharply contemporary, individualized buildings that subtly pay homage to its MiMo design.

“There is a high degree of continuity and cohesion across everything he’s doing,’’ said Beach design and preservation manager Thomas Mooney.

The section of Collins that Faena settled on for his $750 million project has long been a sort of dead zone between the sizzle of South Beach, which ends at 23rd Street, and the bustle of the renovated Fontainebleau hotel, at 44th and Collins. That stretch has seen some modest budget-hotel renovations, but the real estate collapse scuttled planned revivals of the Saxony and Versailles.

Mooney said the city hopes Faena will succeed in creating a unified, pedestrian-friendly district in what is now an automobile-dominated wasteland.

Faena’s not the only one working the stretch. Ian Schrager’s Edition hotel and residences, a renovation and expansion of another historic mid-century resort, the Seville, is nearing completion at Collins and 29th Street. Two penthouses at the Edition residences, designed by the minimalist English architect John Pawson, sold for a reported $34 million total to the same buyer. Other historic hotel renovations nearby have been announced.

But Faena’s set on redefining the neighborhood, not just one building.

He’s convinced he can repeat the studied magic of Puerto Madero — a mix of old and new architecture, of private and public, of art and a luxurious, color-drenched decor that combines old-world glamour with the sleekly contemporary.

A decade ago, Faena, a former fashion mogul, purchased an old grain warehouse in Puerto Madero, an abandoned riverfront port area, and persuaded French superstar designer Philippe Starck to turn it into a hotel with a dreamy modern-meets-baroque sensibility. Whimsical Starckian touches include a nearly all-white dining room with unicorn heads protruding over the tables.

Over the next several years, Faena hired Foster + Partners to design an adjacent apartment block, and he turned an old mill building into an exhibition space for contemporary art run by his partner, curator Ximena Caminos. His success drew legions of developers to the port area, now a dynamic, and pricey, residential and entertainment district.

“We try to create from the micro to the macro, so that the taste of the coffee we serve in the hotel has the same grandeur of the buildings and the neighborhood,’’ Faena said. “When you invest with ambition, from the viewpoint of culture, of art, of architecture, even the cuisine, in association with the best talents in the world, everything around begins to take on value. My ability was to have the patience and to direct them and to know what I wanted.’’

Faena said he’s bringing the same obsessive approach to the Beach, where he hopes to provide guests, residents and visitors an experience he likens to walking into a film or a dream. It’s no coincidence that Roman and Williams’ principals launched their careers as film set designers, or that he’s bringing in Luhrmann and Martin, a costume designer and producer.

For the Faena House condo tower, Faena asked Foster + Partners to design everything from the building envelope to the window fittings and handles on the wide sliding glass doors that lead outside, to the resin, heat-resistant handrails that top the sloping glass balustrades.

Faena said he and the architects studied the Saxony “balcony by balcony’’ to ensure the design would echo its historic neighbor, which the new tower respectfully steps back from as it rises, while setting a new standard for contemporary Beach architecture.

“The idea is to see the future but always based on the past,’’ Faena said. “We want to bring back the old glamour of the time of the Saxony, of that ’40s moment in Miami Beach.’’

The streamlined, asymmetrical shape of the mid-rise building was designed in cooperation with engineers to dissipate hurricane strength-winds and provide maximum shade to the units through the use of uncommonly broad, wing-like aleros, or covered verandas, that ring the tower, said Foster + Partners senior partner Brandon Haw. Some of the units have nearly as much floor space outside on the verandas as inside. The sensation for the occupants should be similar to sailing on a yacht, he and Faena say.

Faena also insisted the building’s parking be put underground at substantial cost to avoid the typical tower-on-a-box model and allow views of the ocean at ground level. The tower will be raised 30 feet on columns over shallow pools of water and a subtropical garden. The structural walls will be polished black concrete. The elevator doors will be black stainless steel.

“The attention to detail from the outside to the inside, and every aspect of living in it, is apart from any other project,’’ Haw said. “Alan is demanding. He is not your typical developer. He has an idiosyncratic way of going about things, but he creates excellent environments for people.’’

Across the street, on the two blocks wedged between Collins and Indian Creek Drive, Faena has proven no less exacting, said OMA partner Shohei Shigematsu. There Faena wanted a succession of accessible, linked public spaces — a domed auditorium inside the rounded corner of the cultural center, which would also function as the hotel ballroom; the shops the courtyard in the Atlantic Beach building; and the adjacent mechanical garage, which would also have shops on the ground floor and a restaurant on top.

“He is repeating a mix of culture and commercial with the core idea of making a neighborhood where there’s not really one there,’’ Shigematsu said.

Faena said he and his management team from Buenos Aires are moving to the Beach to complete the project, which they intend to manage long-term. Hands-on, he said, is the only way to make it work the way he wants it to.

“We’re doing a project to stay,’’ Faena said. “It’s a neighborhood for the future. That’s why we’re taking it so seriously. The big winner is the city. It’s the people of Miami Beach.’’