Philippe Starck's bigger splash

Buenos Aires' latest wows Ian McCurrach

When Argentina seemed to be sinking ever deeper into financial and political crisis a few years ago, Alan Faena, one of South America's leading fashion designers and entrepreneurs, conceived a luxurious hotel which he hoped would help to restore some of Buenos Aires's former glory.

When Argentina seemed to be sinking ever deeper into financial and political crisis a few years ago, Alan Faena, one of South America's leading fashion designers and entrepreneurs, conceived a luxurious hotel which he hoped would help to restore some of Buenos Aires's former glory.

"I wanted to generate a project that would represent the way the city is looking today," he says. The result is the Faena Hotel + Universe, Faena's claim for which is that it is "much more than just a hotel. It's a cultural centre that has a hotel in it."

The Universe comprises two restaurants, a market place, outdoor pool, terrace, gym, hammam and spa. It also has a small theatre space, El Cabaret, where performances begin next week, El Living, the living room space and library bar where jazz musicians play, and the LEA (Laboratory of Experimental Artists), where Faena supports painters, sculptors and performance artists. "We want to make a mark on Latin American culture and present it to the world," he says.

To turn his vision into reality, Faena courted the designer Philippe Starck, presenting him with material celebrating the history and richness of the city. Many architects and designers were sceptical, believing that Starck's minimalist look, synonymous with Ian Schrager's hotels, was "so last century".

But the Universe is a big departure from Starck's previous work. The design is grand, yet opulent and comfortable. "If you came here and didn't know that Philippe had worked on the project you probably wouldn't realise," Faena says. "Instead of his trademark white, we have red, and the design is much, much heavier. It's full of the passion and blood of our Latin culture, the melancholia of the tango."

The hotel is housed in the El Porteno building, a seven-storey grain silo built in 1902, in the heart of Puerto Madero, the regenerated docklands area on the edge of the city. Guests arrive via an 80-metre long corridor of engraved glass and velvet curtains in deep gold, which Starck calls "Le Catedral".

The 83 guest rooms fuse imperial style with contemporary extravagance, using dark lapacho wood and sandstone flooring. Marble, gilt, crystal chandeliers, etched glass and modern Rococo-style furnishings, including 18-carat gold swan chairs, are in abundance. Each room has a large TV, DVD and CD player.

Pampering is easy in the vast glass-walled bathrooms, which can be enclosed by red velvet drapes. Each has a massive bath with claw feet and separate cubicles for shower, lavatory and bidet.

The hotel has many features that will no doubt be copied by others. Already, the jet-set are dropping by in their droves, attracted by the high style and low prices. Apart from the room rate, minibar and laundry, which are charged in US dollars, everything else is charged in pesos making it as cheap as chips.

The atmosphere by the pool is very much party - during my visit,the head count of well-heeled and well-honed gay men was high.

Faena has plans to open in other cities, and a second, smaller Universe is likely to open in Rio de Janeiro's trendy Ipanema in late 2006.

The writer travelled as a guest of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which offers returns from Heathrow to Buenos Aires via Sao Paulo from £697. The Faena Hotel + Universe (00 54 11 4010 9000; www.faenahotelanduniverse.com) offers doubles from $300 (£167) per night, including breakfast and transfers.

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