Santander Torn as Botin’s Guggenheim-Like Center Splits City

A landmark arts center on the waterfront of Santander is dividing the Spanish port city over the clout of its best-known native son Emilio Botin and his family’s banking dynasty.

The Botin Center, a white ceramic building of two interlinking sections containing an auditorium and space for an art gallery, is being built on columns and will loom over Santander Bay. The 80 million-euro ($108 million) complex designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, which has yet to be completed, celebrates the formal start of its cultural activities tonight with a free concert by Tony Hadley, the former lead singer of the British pop group Spandau Ballet.

Banco Santander SA Chairman Botin wants the center to be a cultural reference point for the city where the lender he runs was founded in 1857, placing it in the company of the Guggenheim Museum in nearby Bilbao or the Pompidou Center in Paris, another Piano project. His ambitions sit less well with some Santander residents who say the building will dominate views over the city’s picturesque bay as a reminder in glass and steel of the influence the Botin family wields in its spiritual home.

“My personal opinion is that he treats Santander like his own personal estate,” said Oscar Manteca, spokesman for Platform in Defense of the Bay, a group that has opposed the project. “He’s a multi-millionaire and he thinks he’s the big chieftain and that the city belongs to him.”

The Centro Botin is taking shape as the Botin Foundation, founded in 1964 by Marcelino, Emilio Botin’s uncle, marks its 50th anniversary and the Santander chairman prepares to celebrate his own 80th birthday.

‘Magical Place’

The foundation funds its activities from the dividend income it earns from a 0.89 percent stake in Santander that reached 60 million euros in 2012, according to the annual report for that year.

Botin declined to comment for this article, while Piano, whose work includes the 72-storey “Shard” building in London, wasn’t available for comment.

“From Santander, the Centro Botin is going to give the world of art and education new ways to generate wealth and development, and unblock creativity,” its director Inigo Saenz de Miera said in a phone interview. “Its position makes it a magical place.”

Botin has said that the construction of the center would generate 1,400 jobs as well as stable employment for the 650 staff needed to attend to its estimated 200,000 annual visitors.

“It’s our most global project because its educational and economic activity will have an impact not just in Spain but in the whole world,” Botin wrote in a prospectus for the building posted on the foundation’s website. “But it’s also our most local project because its first objective is to build up the life of Santander through the arts.”

Giving Back

Botin may be motivated by the desire to leave a monument in his home town as his own career draws to its close, said Mauro Guillen, a professor of management and international relations at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He published a 2007 history of Banco Santander.

“It can’t be a bad thing for a small city such as Santander to have a benefactor like Botin,” he said in a phone interview. “As people that have achieved a lot in life approach retirement, they often feel they want to give something back. Of course there will always be people that don’t like it.”

The bank the Botins built was founded 157 years ago as a lender for trade from the port on Spain’s Cantabrian coast as the region saw an industrial boom spurred by the railroad and mining. Rafael Botin Aguirre, brother of Emilio’s great-grandfather, became the first family member with an executive role at the bank when he was named a managing director in 1895.

Maria’s Discovery

Botin himself started as a low-level manager in the lender’s oldest branch in Santander, where he needed a superior to sign off on his approvals of customer applications for loans. He became chairman in 1986 when his father stepped down from the post after 36 years, going on to turn Spain’s sixth-biggest bank into the largest by market value in the euro region through more than $70 billion of takeovers.

The Botin family donated their residence in Santander -- a mansion called “El Promontorio” overlooking the El Sardinero beach -- to the family foundation in 2006.

Still, family links to the city and Cantabrian region remain strong. The bank holds board meetings at its historic offices that overlook the new arts center and Botin himself remains a supporter of Racing Santander soccer club. The kindergarten at Santander’s headquarters on an olive tree-ringed campus outside Madrid is named after Altamira, the site near Santander where Botin’s great-grandmother Maria discovered a world-famous series of prehistoric cave paintings at the age of eight in 1879.

‘Steel Boot’

For Antonio Gonzalez-Capitel, a professor in the architecture department of Madrid’s Polytechnic University who opposed the arts center, its faults include the fact that it juts out into the bay, visually dominating the shorefront.

“You shouldn’t build out over the Cantabrian Sea -- that’s been architectural common sense for the last 3,000 years,” he said in a phone interview. “Santander is a beautiful provincial city and this man who made his bank the biggest in the country is now planting his steel boot in the place where he was born.”

Saenz de Miera, the center’s director, says the project went ahead only after an extensive consultation process in which improvements to the original plans were made.

“We are very happy with the process of consultation that has greatly helped to improve the project,” he said.

Piano’s plan includes re-routing traffic into a road tunnel that will allow the civic gardens to be extended down to the water’s edge while the curved shapes of the center’s buildings will allow clear views to the sea.

‘Sensitive’ Plans

“The exterior will be clad with small off-white ceramic tiles that easily adapt to the shape of the building and have a shimmering, mother-of-pearl finish, adding luminosity to the building under Santander’s often grey sky,” the architect’s firm said on its website.

Since the center is raised from the ground, views of the bay will remain unobscured while the buildings themselves will be partly hidden by a canopy of trees, Emanuela Baglietto, the Renzo Piano architecture firm partner in charge of the project, said in a phone interview today.

“We think it will make a great contribution to the city,” she said. “We have been sensitive.”

The people of Santander will be able to draw their own conclusions about center’s impact on their city when dignitaries including Botin and Mayor Inigo de la Serna attend the opening ceremony for its gardens and road tunnel.

City Divided

For now, the city remains divided as it watches Piano mould Botin’s vision into reality on its quayside.

“For people like me who have always lived here, the view is very important; we’re used to looking at the sea and the scenery,” Marta Elio, 55, a caregiver to the elderly who’s now unemployed, said in an interview last month. “We like the way the bay looks and we feel wary of it being touched.”

Resting on a bench overlooking the bay, Julian Fernandez, 81, who used to run a bar in the city, likes what Botin’s doing.

“It’s marvelous -- it’s the best Botin could’ve done for the city,” he said. “The Botin family has done a lot for Santander -- and they continue to do so -- but their being so rich and powerful generates a lot of envy.”

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