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Head north out of Madrid’s city centre along the Paseo de la Castellana and you will soon encounter what looks like a spacecraft rising on your right.

A steel frame weighing 7,000 tonnes envelops the structure, which is more than 57 metres high and weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower. By the time it is finished, it will have cost more than €1billion ($1bn; £862m).

In 2011, Real Madrid decided to carry out the most ambitious renovation project in the club’s history. Eight years later, that vision started to become a reality with the first redevelopment works at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. It is now just a few months away from completion.

From the outside, Real’s redesigned ground looks like something from a futuristic film set.

From its stands, look up and you see a huge 8,000-square-metre blanket of six movable fences that can cover the pitch in 15 minutes.

In its depths, a novel design system — the most challenging part of the project — allows the pitch to be folded neatly away below the playing surface.

Here, The Athletic speaks to the architects behind the revamp to tell the story of the Bernabeu’s transformation — a process that will be completed in December.

Some say it will be “the most modern” stadium in the world, others call it a “physical icon of Madrid”.

Others see it more critically.

(Illustration provided by Real Madrid via Getty Images)

The history of the Bernabeu dates back to the 1940s, when Real’s president, Santiago Bernabeu, decided to build a 100,000-capacity stadium. It was opened in 1947 and stood in stark contrast to where Madrid had previously played — the 22,500-capacity Estadio Chamartin which was next door to what would become the Bernabeu.

It would be the largest stadium in the world until the inauguration of the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro during the 1950 World Cup.

In 1955, it was named after Bernabeu, the imposing president who played for and managed Madrid.

Since then, it has hosted the finals of the 1964 European Championship and the 1982 World Cup, multiple European Cup finals and even the Copa Libertadores final — when South America’s equivalent of the Champions League moved its showpiece to Europe in 2018 due to fan violence in Buenos Aires.

The Bernabeu has hosted boxing, cycling and concerts by singers including Frank Sinatra. But it has also been in a constant state of transition since undergoing its first major restructuring in 1955, coinciding with the establishment of the European Cup. Floodlights were installed in 1957, a roof was introduced before the World Cup in 1982 and the capacity has fluctuated from 125,000 to around 80,000 in recent years.

There were further changes in the early 1990s. Architect and lifelong fan Carlos Lamela led a project with a budget of €30million that increased the stadium’s height by 20 metres, created a new stand, increased capacity by 20,000 to 106,000 and introduced four towers on each corner of the Bernabeu, inspired by those at San Siro. Real were forced to reduce their capacity to 75,000 in 1997 to comply with UEFA regulations following the stadium disasters at Hillsborough and Heysel, but it returned to 81,004 in 2002 thanks to another project from Lamela and his team.

“The concept of a stadium has changed radically,” Lamela says. “When I was eight or nine years old until I was 18, I went with my father and my mother and we parked at the stadium entrance. From the car to my seat there were 20 metres and now it is unthinkable. What the club wants now is that, if it is not used every day, at least it is used almost every day. That it should be a leisure centre, where people go to spend the day. That was the idea behind the new project.”

The Bernabeu in 2018 (Photo: Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

That was Florentino Perez’s vision when he first became president in 2000, but it only truly started to take shape during his second spell in charge from 2009. At the club’s general assembly in 2011, he said “the stadium of our dreams must become the best stadium in the world” and “must offer a universal image”.

Madrid’s shareholders approved a first loan of €575m with a fixed interest rate of 2.5 per cent for 30 years to finance Perez’s redevelopment plans in 2018. The works started in 2019 and a year later Real took out a second loan of €225m with a fixed interest rate of 1.53 per cent for 27 years for “works not initially included in the remodelling” — referring to the retractable pitch which had not been part of the club’s plans at first.

Interest means that spending on the new Bernabeu will exceed €1bn. The stadium will have a completely new facade, a retractable roof, a 360-degree video scoreboard, an access tunnel, a new stand and a retractable pitch.

The project was set to be completed by the end of 2022, but problems related to the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed that back. The new-look Bernabeu is now expected to be unveiled on December 23, 2023.

“We started the works and, as soon as we started, the pandemic came,” Perez told Spanish sports show El Chiringuito last year. “And then the war in Ukraine and that, as we all know, has caused two things: the lack of materials and the rise in prices. But we are solving all the problems and we are happy to have started, even if it was before the pandemic.”

According to Spanish newspaper El Confidencial, the placement of the roof has caused further setbacks and has created a conflict between the club and the architects. The architects refused to comment when approached by The Athletic, saying the information was “imprecise”.

Real spent 18 months away from their iconic ground after the pandemic hit, playing at their Valdebebas training centre, and had to make do with a reduced capacity of 60,000 at the Bernabeu when they returned.

That did not seem to affect the atmosphere on big Champions League nights too much, as they won a 14th European Cup in remarkable fashion last year — but having to build on top of an existing structure has made the project even more difficult for those involved with it.

(Photo: Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“Having done the renovation in an existing stadium and playing matches while the works were being done, I don’t think anyone would dare to do this again,” says Alejandro Lorca, head of the renovation project and partner architect of L35, the firm who are leading the project along with German company GMP and Spanish architects Ribas.

Real Madrid were keen to ensure the stadium could be used for as many events as possible. That was where the idea of a retractable pitch came in — a system of six platforms that will come together to make the Bernabeu’s grass pitch and which can be stored underground. The grass will sit just below the surface when Real are not playing, in a space that is 132 metres long, 20 metres wide and nearly 30 metres deep.

“It’s a greenhouse,” says Tristan Lopez-Chicheri, the chief executive of L35. “The chamber underneath the stadium has all the conditions for the grass to be cared for, treated and kept in perfect condition.”

Installing the pitch was not simple. The lack of space around the Bernabeu and an old commuter tunnel under the stadium — known as the “tunnel of laughter” because of how long it took to be built — meant Madrid could not just use a single platform. Instead, they had to divide the pitch into several sections so they could be stacked underground.

The pitch is not the only new element — for the first time, the Bernabeu will be completely covered at times thanks to the retractable roof. It is made up of two giant panels, each of which weighs 800 tonnes and is 144 metres long. A service tunnel will run the length of the stadium under the roof.

The stadium’s facade also promises to be eye-catching, with an undulating structure its designers say will be even more distinctive than before.

“An icon is something that you know by its parts: you put a little piece of a pyramid or of Westminster and you recognise it,” says Lopez-Chicheri.

“Normally stadiums are located in open areas and you have a lot of perspective to see them, but not the Bernabeu. The design has four or five sightlines that move and generate this fluidity. No two metres of the Bernabeu’s facade are the same.”

(Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)

Not everyone is happy with the Bernabeu’s redevelopment. A group that represents 25,000 residents who live in the area around the stadium have regularly demonstrated against the underground tunnel the club hopes to create to allow greater access to the ground.

The association have lodged an appeal with the City Council against that tunnel, the construction of two car parks of 1,300-2,000 spaces and the felling of 90 trees by Real to make the most of space in the city centre — with the latter already having started.

“All this is being done without an environmental plan (which is the responsibility of the Madrid City Council) and without taking into account traffic and mobility,” says Inmaculada Ramos, the lawyer and secretary of the association. “I’m not an architect, I don’t dare evaluate it, but nobody thinks of Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street with a stadium of this size.”

When asked for comment, Madrid City Council’s urban planning department said that no environmental plan was necessary for the project “according to European and national regulations”.

They added that they had implemented traffic and mobility plans and had found there would be a reduction in cars and other vehicles, meaning the tunnel is “an environmentally positive measure”. The works have been put out to tender and are set to begin unless the justice system upholds the neighbourhood association’s appeal.

The lack of space around the Bernabeu means Madrid have been forced to build upwards over the years, making the stadium one of the highest in Europe at 57 metres tall.

“It is tremendously steep,” says Lorca. “It has a consequence in matches and that is that you see a wall of people. It intimidates a lot of people and it’s one of the great successes of the Bernabeu.”


What it’s like to play at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu fortress on a Champions League night

Or, as Lopez-Chicheri puts it: “The players say that they get on the pitch and feel that everyone is on top of them. The stadium is very vertical, in other words, you go to the highest part of the stands and if you get excited you fly out. Nowadays, it would not be possible to build a stadium like that again because the rules no longer allow such slopes.”

The Bernabeu stands, then, will remain unaffected apart from the VIP areas, new seats being installed across the stadium and a new upper stand on the east side, just above the press area. The four towers on each corner will also stay, although two have had to be rebuilt and moved to leave more space for the pavement.

Madrid hope to receive an instant financial boost once the works are completed. They generated €170m in “members and stadium” revenue in the 2018-19 season (the last before the pandemic and its restrictions) but they expect this to rise to more than €300m and to have fully accounted for the investment in four to five years through concerts and conventions held there as well as restaurants and other shops in the stadium.

The club have an agreement with the investment group Sixth Street and the entertainment group Legends Hospitality to receive €360m in exchange for 30 per cent of revenues from concerts and events held at the stadium for the next 20 years. Taylor Swift will be the first major artist to perform there next May.

There are parallels with how Madrid’s Clasico rivals Barcelona pulled financial ‘levers’ last summer to sign a host of new players by raising funds from future revenues. Real will hope their version paves the way for even more success — on and off the pitch.

(Top photo: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images, blueprint via Madrid City Council; design: Sam Richardson)