It takes $3.6m to tango
By Nick Foster
Published: May 6 2011 22:02 | Last updated: May 6 2011 22:02
Levenfiche’s apartment in the modernist Kavanagh Building
Nowhere in Buenos Aires captures the city’s mid 20th-century aspirations better than the Kavanagh Building. It’s an apartment block that – at 120 metres – was South America’s tallest building and the highest reinforced concrete structure in the world when it was completed in 1936.
So it’s fitting that the Kavanagh’s largest unit – occupying the whole of the 14th floor – is the most expensive apartment on sale in the city, with five en-suite bedrooms and a series of spacious reception rooms spread over 1,980 sq ft. Private terraces and gardens add a further 820 sq ft. Local agency Tierra Estates has the property on its books for US$3.6m (property prices are routinely quoted in US dollars in Argentina).
Since 2005 it has been the Argentine pied-à-terre of Alain Levenfiche, an Englishman born in France and raised in London. “The apartment was in a rather dilapidated state when I bought it,” says Levenfiche. “But there was no doubting its elegance.”
Cue a full makeover: Levenfiche ordered new bathrooms with marble from Italy, Pakistan and the Ivory Coast. He built a reinforced glass dance floor in one of the reception rooms and installed a floor-to-ceiling aquarium in another. One of two master bedrooms has a bedstead decorated with Swarovski crystal. It has been the venue for a number of glamorous events, including the launch party for Paco Rabanne’s new perfume in March.
His polo estate at Santa María de Lobos
On a clear day you can spot the coastline of Uruguay across the River Plate estuary. In any weather, you can see Puerto Madero, a riverfront residential, office and entertainment district, and a weather vane for confidence in the city’s real estate market. Here, new-build luxury apartments sell for an average of $5,000 per sq m. Across town in the trendy Palermo neighbourhood, the entry-level price for a three-bedroom townhouse ripe for renovation is about $250,000. “You could call this an orderly property market,” says Levenfiche. “People tend to avoid distress sales and there are no outlandish levels of credit.”
In spite of Argentina’s record of political instability and the absence of anything resembling a mature mortgage market, the country’s growing economy triggered residential price rises of 9 per cent in 2010, according to the Cámara Argentina de la Construcción (chamber for the construction industry), which also predicts a 7 per cent increase in 2011. There were 16 per cent more property transactions in the city in 2010 than in 2009.
Soon after buying and refurbishing his apartment in the Kavanagh Building, Levenfiche embarked on a different challenge: “I wanted to build not so much a home as a dream – my vision of the perfect polo estate house.” The result is a sumptuous residence in a private estate at Santa María de Lobos, 1 hour 15 minutes’ drive from the city. Levenfiche’s neighbours include US actor Tommy Lee Jones, who is rebuilding his mansion on the estate. But with Levenfiche’s property – including swimming pool, helipad, outhouses and vegetable garden – covering 7.5 hectares, there is little chance of residents bumping into each other.
Polo is the main attraction of the estate, which has a number of polo fields and attracts some of the country’s top players. The house is on sale for $4.2m. According to Andrew Rae McCance of Tierra Estates, which is selling the property, it rents for $3,000 to $5,000 per week depending on the season and the schedule for polo games. Levenfiche, who cut his teeth in the UK property sector in the 1970s, is one of an increasing number of British entrepreneurs (McCance is another) operating in the Argentine capital’s high-end home and lifestyle market. “Luxury property is generally undervalued in Argentina,” says McCance. “And the country has a great potential for growth.”
Nigel Tollerman quit a job in London’s financial sector in 2002 and came to Argentina to retrain as a sommelier before completing an MBA. Four years ago he set up 0800-Vino, a specialist wine supplier. “I underestimated the variety and quality of the wines here before I arrived. It’s something that has helped the local restaurant scene improve and diversify, which in turn makes Buenos Aires a more interesting and agreeable place to live.”
Surprisingly, Tollerman was the first commercial wine dealer to install a temperature- and humidity-controlled wine cellar at his premises. Film director Francis Ford Coppola, who has a townhouse in the Palermo district (which is rented to paying guests as the Jardín Escondido, or “Hidden Garden”, when its owner is out of town) entrusts Tollerman with storing the most valuable bottles in his collection.
Homebuyers in the city are advised to apply the perfect Buenos Aires look – which hovers at present between hacienda chic and a contemporary, industrial feel – to furnishings and fittings. “You can’t very easily go and buy things off the shelf,” says Emma Balch, an interior designer from Yorkshire who has set up home in the edgy neighbourhood of San Telmo and runs her own company, Doble M Design. “Many things are custom-made by blacksmiths and carpenters. Sofas, for instance, tend to be handmade but you need contacts to find the right craftsmen – they don’t necessarily advertise their services widely.”
One of the city’s most original homes is a 10-bedroom, seven-bathroom residence on a quiet street in San Telmo, with a cone-shaped brick chimney and metal staircase with a screen constructed from a collage of abstract shapes and cut-outs in place of a handrail. Its US owner is planning to return to New York after bringing up her family in Buenos Aires; the asking price is $890,000 (through the Leticia Firpo agency).
Otherwise, you can go shopping for antiques. “There is a wealth of early 20th-century European furniture on sale in the city, brought over by immigrants,” says Balch, who also recommends making use of traditional textiles from the north of Argentina: “They are wonderful and, thanks to the intensity of the light here, you can get away with their strong colours in a way that wouldn’t be straightforward in Britain.”
● Buenos Aires is a vibrant city with excellent restaurants, boutiques, street markets and art galleries.
● It has a pleasant subtropical climate with many sunny days and cool evenings.
● It has architectural and design styles to suit everyone – from rationalism to art deco, and from neoclassical to minimalist.
● Inflation is running at 20-25 per cent.
● The country feels politically volatile and the authorities cannot even get some simple things right, eg there is a chronic lack of small change.
● Although not a dangerous city, muggings and bag snatchings are on the rise.
What you can buy for
● $100,000 A one-bedroom apartment in middle-class Barrio Norte, or an 8,500 sq ft building plot at the Estancia Villa María, a residential estate outside the city.
● $1m A five-bedroom apartment in Recoleta, a short walk from the famous cemetery where Eva Perón is buried.
Tierra Estates tel: +54 11 4807 9046, www.tierraestates.com
Leticia Firpo tel: +54 11 4343 4414, www.leticiafirpo.com
Estancia Villa María estate tel: +54 11 4334 1000, www.estanciavillamaria.com
En Buenos Aires (property search engine): www.enbuenosaires.com