The new building for the legendary Mariinsky Theatre has almost been completed in St. Petersburg. The theatre’s construction enraged, first, Petersburg citizens and, then, Moscow intellectuals, who are now collecting signatures for a petition to the governor of St. Petersburg, demanding that the new theatre be razed to the ground.
“The nervous agitation that exploded around the unfinished construction regretfully brings back memories of a civic and professional uproar that was raised against Dominique Perrault’s beautiful project. It was that wave of protests that killed his project and forced us to look for the quick, simple and cheap solution that we have on our hands right now. The public should take a good hard look at itself before calling for radical measures again,” Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum, stated in his letter.
The story of the new Mariinsky building dates back to 2003, when the French architect Dominique Perrault won the international bid for the new theatre design with a proposal featuring a futuristic structure crowned with a huge dome. However, Perrault’s project failed to receive technical approval. A new bid had to be announced in 2006, and cooperation with Perrault was terminated after it was decided to effectively design a new Mariinsky building from scratch; the Canadian architecture firm Diamond and Schmitt won the new bid. As a result, the Canadian design was literally placed on top of the foundation built for Perrault’s project.
The “Mariinsky 2” — as the new building has been dubbed — occupies an entire city block in central St. Petersburg and is being built in close vicinity to the historic Mariinsky building. A pedestrian bridge across the Kryukov Canal connects the two.
The Mariinsky 2 has meanwhile become one of the world’s most expensive theatre buildings. Its original budget stood at 10 billion rubles ($332 million) in 2003. A total of 16 billion rubles ($531 million) had been spent by the beginning of 2012, with the total price tag now projected at around 22 billion rubles ($730 million). The theatre is expected to open its doors to the public this May.
The moderately conservative, geometrically regular Mariinsky 2 building contrasts with the standard classicism of central St. Petersburg. Critics say the building looks more like a shopping mall than an opera theatre.
Piotrovsky has an answer to that too: “Internal organization and equipment are the most important features of a theatre. In any case, we should wait until the construction is finished before turning on the protest chorus,” his letter read.
After all, the Mariinsky’s director, Valery Gergiev, has an important say in how the theatre building will look — and Gergiev likes it all.
At a press conference called by the theatre and specifically on this matter, the maestro said that he was happy with the results of the first acoustic test conducted in late December 2012. “My first impressions are very good,” said Gergiev. “The choir, the soloists and the orchestra can all be heard very well. I directed myself, and then I listened to the concert from the last row of the orchestra seats. I think it’s a promising start.”
As far as the front of the theatre building is concerned, Gergiev believes that it is too early to comment. “We can’t make any conclusions yet — the building has to be seen as a whole, and this is not yet possible. The glass stairs have not been installed; and there are no space-transforming lights yet that will make the theatre glow in the dark and illuminate the city center, which suffers so much from the lack of sunny days and the long winter nights,” Gergiev said.
St. Petersburg architects polled by RIA Novosti were somewhat restrained in their assessments of the new theatre building.
“I would grade the new theatre building a solid C+. It hasn’t ruined the location, it has an acceptable scale, and it doesn’t look completely out of place. As far as its façade is concerned, it could have been more expressive. Unfortunately, the new building is a rather run-of-the-mill structure. Compared to the Mariinsky’s status in world musical culture, it’s far behind. I would like the status of the building to match the status of the theatre,” said the head of B2 architecture firm, Feliks Buyanov.
He added that he originally supported Dominique Perrault’s project. “That project could have been epic for St. Petersburg and Russian architecture as a whole, but it didn’t happen that way. You can’t help but feel disappointed because it never came to be,” Buyanov said.
Rafael Dayanov, head of Liteynaya Chast-91, called the new Mariinsky building an exclusively functional structure. “This structure is a purely functional building, and there’s no architecture to speak of,” Dayanov said. “Perhaps it has good acoustics, a good stage and a good hall. As for the architecture, or the blending with the environment, or becoming an architectural highlight, it doesn’t really tick the boxes.”