The gilded mammoth skeleton by Damien Hirst. — Faena House, Miami Beach’s new clubhouse for the rich, rises just steps from the menacing turquoise sea. Photograph by Ivan Belaustegui Courtesy of Faena
What would the woolly mammoth tell us, if it could speak, about what it’s like to go extinct? Probably it would point out that those Hollywood movies about large-scale environmental disasters are bullshit. That extinction isn’t something that happens dramatically and all at once, but slowly. That it just creeps up, like the ocean after a long, lazy day at the beach.
Of course, the woolly-mammoth-in-residence at the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach isn’t going to tell anyone anything, since, in addition to being preverbal and long dead, its remains have been coated in 24-karat gold by the artist Damien Hirst, sealed in a glass coffin, and placed on the waterfront of a resort where the deepest question it seems to generate in the tourists who walk by is what filter they should use to Instagram it on their way to the dwindling beach.
City boosters will tell you how much Miami has changed over the past few years: how Art Basel, among other things, has transformed this traditionally sunny place for shady people into an international destination for artists and intellectuals. But the city remains resolutely incurious, for the fairly obvious reason that if you start thinking, you realize pretty quickly that whatever you are doing in Miami — be it drinking margaritas or sunbathing or starting a Ponzi scheme or merely existing on a strip of sand that scientists predict will be completely submerged by the end of this century — is long-term unhealthy if not kind of unconscionable.
Which makes the placement of Hirst’s mammoth seem like a bold move. A woolly freaking mammoth! A creature whose extinction was likely brought about by a changing climate! As the centerpiece of a brand-new, $1 billion–plus, completely over-the-top real-estate development a stone’s throw from the rising tides! Whoever decided to put this literal elephant in the room must have a pretty dark sense of humor. Or is a nihilist. Or both?
Then again, maybe it was just a decorating decision. “It’s Len’s,” says Alan Faena, the hotel’s namesake owner. He is speaking of his partner, Len Blavatnik, a jolly Ukrainian-born American oligarch whose splurges on art and real estate are often described as “record-setting” or “most expensive ever.” “He bought it in Cannes, like, two years ago from Damien,” Faena goes on, about the statue, Gone But Not Forgotten, which Blavatnik purchased for a reported $15 million at a charity auction. “He called and said, ‘I have a mammoth! What do we do with the mammoth?’ ”
It’s a Friday afternoon, and Faena, an expressive Argentine, is bustling about the hotel, which opened this past December and is already a hit with the glitterati. “This is a very beautiful moment,” he says, after greeting Chrissy Teigen and her husband, John Legend, who are sitting down to lunch in the restaurant outside. “Because I see the people enjoying it.”
As usual, Faena, who, at 52, has roughly the build of an Academy Award statuette, is dressed in all white: white suit, white fedora, white neckerchief, and white-rimmed sunglasses. Turning on his white shoes, he points out a squat palm tree. “This was the tree of Pablo Escobar!” he says triumphantly, explaining that he was able to salvage it from the former drug lord’s recently demolished Miami Beach estate.
The Faena is full of these kinds of unusual details. There’s a taxidermied peacock in the library, shaman-designed treatments in the spa, and chandeliers that flicker whenever lightning strikes on the Argentine pampas. There’s even a second Hirst in one of the restaurants: a golden unicorn with one flank open, revealing bloody innards. Hirst named it The Golden Myth, though Faena’s accent rather more accurately renders it The Golden Meat. Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin, the husband-and-wife team otherwise known for making movies like The Great Gatsby, were among the designers who had a hand in making the Faena. “So that everyone can feel like they are the star of their own movie,” says Faena, who is for sure the star of his.
The decadence can take on a surreal quality. “This is going to sound crazy,” my husband had said the night before, coming back from his second trip to the restaurant’s bathroom with a funny look on his face. “But I swear they do something to the light in there that makes your pee sparkle like diamonds.” Yes, he’d been drinking. But it wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility.
“From the macro to the meekro, the level of love and detail is the same,” says Faena, who seems to view design through a spiritual prism in a way that may be impossible to articulate. “It’s not just design,” he says, of the look of the hotel. “It’s based on truth, on a story.”
We’re standing in the hotel’s lobby or, as it is called at the Faena, “the cathedral,” a palo santo–scented hall that features massive gold columns and eight murals inspired by episodes in Faena’s own life. “I believe that I am a storyteller. And that’s what I like to do,” he says. “To tell stories. Like I can tell you about … Hey, how are you?” he says, distracted by a guest who identifies herself as visiting from Greenwich, Connecticut.
“We’re picking the bat mitzvah date!” she tells him. “We’re going to do it in that whole section!”
The story that Faena, a fashion designer turned real-estate developer, wants to tell today is about the grand utopia — or “Futopia,” as he prefers to call it — that he and his partner are creating here in the saggy midsection between South Beach and the Fontainebleau formerly known as Mid-Beach. The hotel is just the first piece of their vision. Once the bulldozers and starchitects they’ve employed have finished their work, the area will be transformed into what he hopes will become a haven for artists, tastemakers, and their patrons, one that recalls Miami’s halcyon days, only with better food and seamless billing. By next year, the Faena District, as the city has agreed to call the three-block stretch of Collins Avenue, will contain the Faena Forum, a Rem Koolhaas–designed arts center opening this fall, and the Faena Bazaar, a luxury shopping center with the feel of a “modern-day souk.” The former Versailles Hotel, up on 34th, is currently being reimagined by the designer Bill Sofield as the Faena Versailles Classic. And next door to the Faena Hotel is the Faena House, a gleaming luxury-condo building designed by Foster + Partners that is already infamous for attracting an alarmingly dense concentration of plutocrats, including Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, Apollo Management honcho Leon Black (or, at least, a shell company of his), and a slew of hedge-fund managers such as James Dinan of York Capital Management and Citadel head Ken Griffin. Rounding out the mix is Blavatnik’s brother Alex, who runs his Warner Music Group, and gallerist Larry Gagosian, who no doubt hopes to sell more Damien Hirsts to all his new neighbors.
“This was not an interesting or a desirable area, which was a challenge,” says Faena of this feat, although between him and Blavatnik, whom he met through the apparel mogul Chris Burch, and with whom he created a similar Futopia in Buenos Aires, he has a decent-size set of contacts. Still, he insists, “We didn’t sell anything. We didn’t need to do any convincing. What we did is present our vision to the world. We say, ‘We bring the best minds of the world to create the most beautiful buildings in America ever!’ And these people, who are the smartest people in the world, they validate our vision, because we have a great story.”
“And you know, it set a record in Miami for the highest price,” interjects a member of Faena’s publicity team, a petite blonde who has been following him around. She is referring to the $60 million Griffin paid for two penthouse units featuring a pool and wraparound terraces. The sales made headlines immediately and, similar to when Kim Kardashian carries a bag and sells it out, seemed to have an enabling effect on the larger Miami-real-estate market, which until recently was driven by foreign capital but is now seeing an increase in wealthy American buyers. (“It’s like they want to huddle together,” says Jacob Roffman, a principal for Miami-based real estate firm 13th Floor Investments, of the sudden influx of wealthy New Yorkers to Miami.)
Back at the hotel, Faena is staring into the distance with an expression that suggests he finds talk of earthly topics like wealth and real estate distasteful. The symbolism of his white hat is fully intentional; all evidence of multimillion-dollar apartments, $800-a-night hotel rooms, and $22 cocktails aside, his goal isn’t to make a space that is elitist. “We are creating a community,” he insists, crunching across a gravel lot toward the site of the Faena Forum, which he envisions as a bastion of art shows and performances. “Not only for the people who stay here, but for Miami Beach and for the people of the world.” He beckons me to the Forum’s roof, so that I can take in the full scale of the project, and points out how the white stucco of old Art Deco hotels matches the white rims on the enormous balconies of the Faena House, which angle toward the ocean like the bow of a ship. “They are different, but they go together,” he murmurs. “It’s like a tango. A tango of creation.”
Just think of what it could be like if they pull it off, he says breathlessly. “These people, as you know, they run the world. But the way that we do it, if you treat them well, with the color and the view and the beach and a massage, if they do yoga and then they go listen to good music and have good food and they see the sun and they see the colors, I think that the people go back to the place more centered, more better. These powerful people go back to New York, they relax. We can change the world.”
You can see how it would be tempting to stop your thinking here. “I know, it’s like a vortex!” says Peter Zalewski, a Miami real-estate broker and self-described contrarian whose company, CondoVultures, proudly feeds on the remains of South Florida’s many bloated real-estate ventures. As Zalewski tells it, Faena is in stage one of the game people have been playing in South Florida since the 1920s. “He’s selling.”
Then Zalewski lays out his version of the Miami landscape. “Everything to the west is reclaimed everglades. Swamp. That’s where the real people live, who are focused on diaper prices and milk and gasoline.” From there, you move east into InvestorWorld, the beachfront mansions and great glass towers. “You trade stock in New York, right?” he says. “What we trade down here are condos.” Remember, the people who come down to Miami are, by virtue of being here, already not really thinking, so getting them to a place where they want to feel like that all the time isn’t a stretch. “They think, Oh, it would be great to have a condo, I would walk on the sand.Effectively, what you are selling is a dream. You have the site, beautiful people, great parties. They make you believe in the lifestyle.”
In Zalewski’s view, the Faena House is as naked an example of “the game” as the Magic City has seen. “The people who are buying these condos are economically savvy and have a trader mentality. They buy early, from plans, and there’s a perceived appreciation for people who will buy later. It’s the Warren Buffett Effect.” The key is, to make money on such a chancy investment, you have to time it right. Because of the brevity of the boom stage of the real-estate cycle and the ways these deals are structured, often using loans from shell companies, three to seven years tend to be the maximum amount of time smart buyers hold their positions. Therefore, according to Zalewski, the Faena, which broke ground three years ago, is already “a ticking time bomb.”
Some have placed their short positions. Back in January, a number of the world’s top hedge-fund managers gathered in the Faena Hotel’s penthouse suite for an annual conference hosted by L.A.-based Drobny Capital. “We’re all looking around, and the place looked like it had just been slapped together,” recalls one attendee. “Like, the doors didn’t close right. Visually, they didn’t line up.” In Faena’s defense, the hotel had only just opened, and it was a tough crowd. But the event, which was meant to be an exchange of ideas, was soon dominated by discussion of Miami real estate and the Faena in particular. “The next day, everyone was texting their friends who had bought units: ‘Sell immediately,’ ” says the attendee. “People were texting and emailing Ken Griffin: ‘This thing is a piece of shit.’ ”
Back on the ground, Faena decides I need to experience the Faena House for myself and leads the way past a massive Jeff Koons sculpture (another donation from Blavatnik, who is perhaps doing some kind of Marie Kondo thing) and up a sinuous driveway flanked by security guards. “You see the fountain?” Faena asks, pointing out a babbling Zen pool. “So soothing.” He gestures toward the high walls that protect the bottom floor — “Black concrete, curved, very modern” — and notes that they won an award from some organization for “best concrete.”
I wonder aloud if the walls are also intended as a protection against the encroaching ocean, which is another thing that makes the Faena, as an investment, feel like a ticking time bomb. Ecologists are predicting that sea levels here will rise by a minimum of three feet by the end of the century, which would turn the entire area we are standing in into a Zen pool. If they go higher, as many believe they will, to six feet, Faena House will have to really turn into a ship, like the car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and for all of its features, it’s not clear it has that capability. The mayor of Miami Beach, Philip Levine, ran for office on the promise that he would stem the rising tides and has installed millions of dollars’ worth of tubes and pumps to push the seawater that floods the streets on a regular basis back into the ocean. If you think about it, of course, this is absolutely ludicrous. But again, that’s not really done down here. “Philip realized that if there was not a plan to deal, the Miami Beach real-estate market was going to be faced with real concerns,” says Zalewski. “Now investors can say to themselves, ‘Okay, they are dealing with it.’ ”
Faena waves this off. “Who can know what happens?” he says. “You think, in New York, you are safer?”
A massive SUV pulls up to the front door, and out of the backseat a shorts-clad leg emerges, followed by as concentrated a version of the trader mentality as exists in this world: Lloyd Blankfein. Benignly human in a baseball cap, grocery bags dangling from his hands, the Goldman Sachs head smiles with bemusement at the sight of the welcoming committee on his doorstep.
“I’m on the eighth floor,” he tells me, when I ask how he reconciled his investment with the reality of nature. “So, fingers crossed, the water crests at the seventh.”
Walking back to his hotel, Faena seems rattled by the conversation. “Who is safe?” he asks rhetorically. “Nobody knows. In the meantime, we have to enjoy. Today is today. Life is happening now!”
We arrive in front of the woolly mammoth. It’s the magic hour, and its tusks are glowing long and golden. When the sea level rises, the mammoth will likely be the first thing on the property to go. Blankfein (should he still be here) will be able to watch the waters wash over it, and its epic, strange journey will finally come to an end.
Or maybe it will survive and, thousands of years from now, be plowed from the mud by some other beings, who will say the equivalent of: What the fuck is this?
Who knows what can happen? Ken Griffin, at least, is apparently optimistic about the future of his Faena House penthouses. He put them back on the market — but they’re listed at an asking price of $73 million, $13 million more than what he paid for them.
*This article appears in the March 21, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.