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Building a new cathedral

Building a new cathedral

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San Mames – the ‘cathedral’ of Spanish football and one of the most historic venues in the European game. For 99 years and 10 months the venerable venue stood as the home of Athletic Bilbao, but has now made way for a new San Mames – a project that is noteworthy for its novel masterplan, along with its delivery in the midst of Spain’s economic crisis.

San Mames – the ‘cathedral’ of Spanish football and one of the most historic venues in the European game. For 99 years and 10 months the venerable venue stood as the home of Athletic Bilbao, but has now made way for a new San Mames – a project that is noteworthy for its novel masterplan, along with its delivery in the midst of Spain’s economic crisis.

While Valencia continues to grapple with its long-stalled Nou Mestalla project, and FC Barcelona and Real Madrid weigh up options for the redevelopment of their homes, Athletic inaugurated its new stadium with a 3-2 Primera Division win over Celta Vigo on September 16. Located on the banks of the Estuary of Bilbao and adjacent to the old stadium, Athletic general secretary Juan Ignacio Añibarro stressed that maintaining the famous atmosphere of the club’s old home was key to the vision behind the new San Mames.

“The main goal for the new stadium was to maintain and increase the special football atmosphere that gave the name ‘cathedral’ to the old stadium,” he told SportBusiness International. “The construction of the new stadium inside the urban limits was also an important challenge, as it was a condition to keep San Mames near the existing stadium. Finally the design team from IDOM-ACXT saw in the new project the opportunity to create a modern stadium that could become a new city icon.”

Regarding the challenge of respecting the heritage of the old stadium, Añibarro added: “Of course, the design team at IDOM-ACXT was very aware of the singular history of both the Athletic Club and San Mames stadium. It allowed the project to make a contemporary interpretation of the key elements from the original design, keeping the heritage of the cathedral and reinventing it for the 21st century.”

The new San Mames has opened in a horseshoe configuration as part of its development plan. Work on the facility began in June 2010, allowing Athletic to continue to play at its home since 1913 while its new venue was being developed next door.

The old stadium, which held 40,000 fans, was demolished in the summer and work continues on the new San Mames’ final stand. Conceding that this development strategy added “complexity” to the project, Añibarro said that the finished stadium would offer “significant improvements” in its services to fans. Indeed, the new facility employs design characteristics to amplify the legendary ‘San Mames effect’ generated by the old stadium, while serving to satisfy the goal of creating a new landmark for the city.

“The new stadium is designed to maximise the closeness of the crowd to the players, and to achieve spectacular acoustics,” Añibarro states. “This allows the stadium to improve the atmosphere and reinforce the pressure effect that the original stadium created. Public circulation spaces face the pitch on the ground floor, and create a new balcony towards the city and the estuary in the upper tier.

“The opportunity to create the new stadium as a whole new building allowed the design team to achieve several unique design features. The roof structure maximises the relationship between the spectators and the players. To do so, the main steel structure elements point towards the centre of the football field, and the horizontal design of the trusses ‘push down’ the roof  onto the pitch.

“The facade of the new San Mames consists of an envelope made of vertical louvers composed by semi-transparent ETFE films. The 90-degree twisting of these modules increases the relationship between the stadium activity and its urban surroundings. The repetition of the modules confers rhythm, scale and dynamism to the building, helping to achieve a moving image which is different depending on the point of view. This facade design, with a special use of lighting, will become an icon for the city of Bilbao.”

The new-look San Mames can currently hold just under 36,000 spectators, with no room for away fans or for new season ticket holders. Añibarro believes that Athletic fans know they will “have to suffer some inconvenience” this season. However, any short-term discontent should be forgotten when the new San Mames opens its doors in its full 53,500-seat, UEFA four-star guise by the end of 2014.

Built at a cost of Eur173 million, Athletic has contributed Eur33 million to the project with the remainder being accounted for by the Basque government, Kutxabank, the provincial council of Bizkaia and the City of Bilbao. And while Athletic’s Primera Division rivals continue to agonise over their own stadium issues, the new San Mames is set to shine as a beacon for Basque pride.

Añibarro added: “The construction of an important piece of infrastructure such as the new San Mames stadium was a strategic investment for the Basque society in order to generate new activity in the area that can help overcome the difficulties created by the financial crisis.”

This article is provided by Rob Ridley, a freelance journalist specialising in the global business of sport. For further details on the new San Mames check out the November issue of SportBusiness International magazine.