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Mariinsky-2, the new theatre in St Petersburg’s renowned artistic complex, opened to fanfares of national pride and triumph. Many locals are not so sure. Was it worth it and what is the end result?

Colin Amery
5 July 2013


Editors’ note

The Mariinsky Theatre of Opera and Ballet opened in 1860 and was named in honour of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Tsar Alexander II.  It is, therefore, 150 years old and now in need of considerable refurbishment.

Artistic and General Director Valery Gergiev knew that he had to upgrade and expand his auditorium space, so that he could stage large-scale modern productions, without having to close down the theatre for days. What Gergiev wanted, was a complex that would give the Mariinsky an international standing at home, on a par with its international touring reputation. 

The first new space was the 1,100-seat Mariinsky Concert Hall, opened in 2006. In May 2013, the new Mariinsky theatre, known as Mariinsky-2, opened with a magnificent three-night gala.  In a world where state funding for the arts is under attack from austerity, the fact that the Russian Government funded the whole of the $750 million project might perhaps be described as a miracle. St Petersburg has other opera, ballet and concert spaces, so what has the city acquired for such a very considerable sum? 

The theatre has 2000 seats; by all accounts, the acoustics and backstage machinery are outstanding. However, the exterior of the building has given rise to much criticism -   ‘bland’, ‘airport’, ‘too big, not in proportion with its surroundings…’ 

Designing a modern building to fit into the resplendent 18th  and 19th  century architectural fabric of St Petersburg was never going to be easy. But it would surely not have been an impossibility; one has only to remember the Louvre Pyramid, to take but one example.  Canadian architects Diamond Schmitt were faced with the unenviable task of designing a building to ‘fit’ the foundations built for the winning design of their predecessor, Dominique Perrault. To what extent have they succeeded? Open Democracy Russia invited Yuliya Minutina, Coordinator of Living City the architectural activist group and Colin Amery, architectural critic and historian (a jury member for the first architectural competition), to look at the story again and evaluate the outcome.

A view from the West: Colin Amery

The story began in 2002 when the Russian Government issued Order No.864 stating that the construction of a new building for St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre should ‘proceed on a competitive basis.’  Then an organising committee of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation decided to hold an international architectural competition for a second theatre next door to the nineteenth century Mariinsky Theatre and linked by a bridge over the Kryukov Canal.

Architectural competitions

On Wednesday 15 January 2003 Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi announced in the theatre the opening of the competition and named the jury and the eleven architects from Russia and around the world, who had been personally invited to compete by the Russian government.

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From a practical point of view, Dominique Perrault's winning project was not flawless. But what came next was an even less satisfactory situation. Photo: Perrault Projects/ADAGP

This was the first major international architectural competition to be held in Russia since the extraordinary competition held under Joseph Stalin’s direction, between 1931 and 1933, to select a design for the Palace of the Soviets on the site of the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in the heart of Moscow. Among the entries at that time were Le Corbusier, Eric Mendelsohn and Walter Gropius. Stalin’s personal intervention did not favour the avant-garde or Modernism but secured a victory for a monumental ‘classical’ design by Boris Iofan, which would have been the world’s tallest building, pioneering a giant steel structure. World War II intervened, the foundations became the basis of the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool and the steel was used in wartime construction. The Cathedral was rebuilt from 1995 to 2000.

Everything was done to ensure that the 2003 Mariinsky competition was fair, and followed international rules. The jury was considered to be highly professional and consisted of thirteen members and the ministerial chair. Six of the jury were international and the remainder Russian.

For a reminder of the quality of the jury it is worth recording the names –

  • Valery Gergiev – conductor, Artistic and General director of the Mariinsky
  • Ludmila Verbitskaya – Rector of the State University of St Petersburg
  • Yury Gnedovsky – President of the Union of Architects of Russia
  • Alexander Kudryavtsey – President of the Russian Academy of Architectural and Construction Science
  • Mikhail Piotrovsky – Director of the State Hermitage Museum
  • Vladimir Popov – President of the St Petersburg Union of Architects
  • Oleg Kharchenko – Chief Architect of St Petersburg

And from abroad: -

  • Colin Amery – architectural writer and Director of the World Monuments Fund in Britain
  • Joseph Clark – Technical Director, Metropolitan Opera New York
  • Kristin Feireiss – architectural adviser to the Minister of Culture Berlin
  • Massimiliano Fuksas – architect based in Rome
  • Bill Lacy – Director Pritzker Prize USA
  • Wolf Prix – Architect with Coop Himmelblau, Vienna.

As well as the carefully selected jury, there were twenty two members of the Organising Committee with a distinguished  ‘competition executive secretary’, Ludmilla Likhachyova, who was also the leading expert on the City of St Petersburg Planning and Architecture Committee.

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Virtually absent from the jury deliberation sessions, Gergiyev's lack of interest undermined the first competition

In addition there was a handpicked group of six specialists who examined technical aspects of all the entries from fire safety to cultural preservation. Four architectural experts including the immensely distinguished academic architectural historian, Dmitry Shvidkovsky, in turn supported them.

Everything seemed to have been considered to ensure a thoroughly well prepared competition that would be fair and produce a good result. There was one unusual element, which was the decision to put the selected designs on public display at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts, before any final choice was made.  This was done so that the people of St Petersburg and officials could discuss the designs a week or so before the jury announced its verdict. In the end it turned out to be somewhat of a token exercise that had little or no effect on the jury’s deliberations.

The entrants

As well as all the careful and detailed preparation to ensure the competition was well run, considerable thought had been given to the selection of the invited architects. Of the eleven firms selected, five were Russian and six international; they were paid $30,000 each to enter. The Russian entrants, two from Moscow and three from St Petersburg, inevitably had less experience of designing competition winning glamorous public buildings. The international practices were all high-powered and chosen partly to show how architecture in post-Communist Russia could be enriched by an injection of foreign creativity.

Dominique Perrault won because the majority of the jury was seduced by his golden glass dome that was inspired by the gilded palaces and churches of the city. 

The Swiss entrant was Mario Botta, designer of museums, churches and even a cathedral in France. From Japan came Arata Isozaki the architect of major cultural buildings worldwide and from Austria the Pritzker Prize winner Hans Hollein, famous as an avant-garde stage and furniture designer as well as architect of several major museums in Germany and the USA.

Erick van Egeraat was selected from the Netherlands for his experimental approach and knowledge of theatre; from France there was Dominique Perrault, architect of the unloved Bibliotheque Nationale; Eric Owen Moss from Los Angeles was included in the list, as he had made an earlier, but unsuccessful design for the site, as a speculative gesture.

The deliberations of the jury were serious but they suffered from the absence of the real client, maestro Gergiev, who only managed two ten-minute appearances with the jury. When he was asked for more discussion time, he offered to meet in a bar after midnight…. It was clear, however, that his preoccupation was with the questions of acoustics rather than any architectural or urban design matters.

Dominique Perrault won because the majority of the jury was seduced by his golden glass dome that was inspired by the gilded palaces and churches of the city. Two members of the jury (Fuksas and Amery) expressed serious reservations on the grounds of cost and practicality, and voted against Perrault.  I recall, when he was asked about the cleaning of the acres of glass, the architect replied ‘We’ll have to  use robots…’ and, on the question of frozen snow,  “it will just slide off …” In the end the jury added a caveat to their choice expressing concerns about the need to control costs and to review the practicalities of the design.

There seemed to be a Russian consensus that the French architect should be the winner – surely there was no connection with the fact that while the jury was deliberating, the French President Jacques Chirac was visiting President Vladimir Putin? Sadly, despite all the trouble that was taken over the first major architectural competition in Russia for 70 years, the subsequent fall-out and the result has been acutely unhappy. In my opinion, the wrong choice was made for both the theatre, and the historic fabric of St Petersburg. This has led to the far from satisfactory situation in 2013, which Yuliya Minutina clearly explains.

A view from Russia: Yuliya Minutina

Mariinsky-2 is the new auditorium for the world-famous Mariinsky [formerly Kirov] Opera and Ballet Company.  It is housed in a separate, but adjoining, building, the planning and construction of which has been one of the most discussed architecture and town planning topics in St Petersburg itself, and possibly further afield too.

This is not only because the theatre and its company is renowned throughout the world, but for the scandals, - financial, PR and social - that accompanied the protracted construction project.

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An 18th century Lithuanian market was demolished to make way for the Mariinsky-II. Photo: (cc)Wikipedia/Serge020

Now the building is complete and the waves of emotion have abated somewhat, it might be time to look back at the project and analyse why, though it was planned as a grandiose innovation, it turned into a huge scandal (if not actually a disgrace…).

The [first] competition

Experts and the general public started questioning the scheme at the very beginning, when designs for the new buildings followed each other in rapid succession. Designs that seemed architecturally interesting to many were completely unsuited to the architectural ensemble of the city’s historic centre.

Conflict between supporters of new architecture and the conservatively-minded section of the population is probably inevitable in any historic city, but the polemic was particularly heated in St Petersburg. Fortunately for us, our city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990, which means that the cityscape has to be protected from outrageous architectural experiments.

In the case of Mariinsky-2 this principle was overridden.

The public outcry was so vociferous, for the additional reason that a whole block of historic buildings had to be demolished to make room for the new construction, including among others an 18th century architectural monument, a fragment of Giacomo Quarenghi’s original Lithuanian Market (1787-89).  Until the last moment the developer had hypocritically assured everyone that the monument would be preserved, even built into the interior of the new theatre; but the demolition of the adjacent buildings was carried out in such a way that, with the exception of an arch, even the façade could be not be saved.

The historic buildings around the construction site also suffered serious damage at the beginning of construction (at which time, incidentally, the design had not yet been finalised), when groundworks produced cracks in the old houses and their foundations started to collapse because of the change in sub-soil moisture levels. This stage of construction lasted several years, which only intensified the damage.

After all these sacrifices had been made, it suddenly transpired that Dominique Perrault’s plan could not be built. The reasons given were that the plans were not detailed enough and that the building, with its large glass dome, would be unsuitable for the Russian winter. Not quite clear why these factors could not have been taken into consideration before declaring Perrault the winner.  There were, however, also rumours of difficulties in the relationship between the client, Valery Gergiev, and Dominique Perrault.

So a new design was now needed.  But there was no new architectural competition and, moreover, any new architectural firms wishing to try their hand at the next round of designing the new theatre were faced with the fact that the proposed groundplan was Perrault’s, so it was really only a question of designing façades and the interior.

The [second] ‘competition’

A tender, rather than a competition, was announced for the design of new ‘decorations’ for the old Perrault design, which meant that the criteria for selecting a winner were completely different – economic and financial, rather than aesthetic.  It goes without saying that the conditions for a tender can be drawn up in such a way as to ensure victory for the ‘right’ candidate, because requirements have only to be matched to the parameters of his design.  Competitions are very different from tenders: architects are paid for submitting a tender, though the money has to be returned if they are not succesful. Thus the task that was set i.e. to make the façade design fit the existing ground plan was doomed from the outset and was only made worse by the completely unsuitable way in which the tender was run, effectively excluding all architectural considerations from the discussion.

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The second design for Mariinsky-II was based on the Diamond Schmitt's design of Four Seasons Centre. But is a building style made for urban, modern Toronto suitable for the heart of UNESCO protected St Petersburg? Photo: (cc) Wikimedia Commons/Taxiarchos228

Nine tenders were submitted, but six were disqualified on technicalities (procedural rather than architectural). Of the remaining three candidates, one did not actually submit a design and a second, for whatever reason (architectural or other), was considered unsuitable .  In this way the jury found itself in a situation reminiscent of Soviet times, of having effectively only candidate to choose from. This was the St Petersburg design firm ViPS, which had already worked on the site. Its scheme was presented jointly with the Canadian firm of Diamond Schmitt Architects as project consultants. Gergiev knew the work of this firm, having seen their Toronto opera house, the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts. He presumably liked what he saw, was able to establish a good relationship with Jack Diamond and Donald Schmitt and felt they could offer him a similar project and a way out of a difficult situation.

The building

Diamond and Schmitt were, however, unable to repeat their designs for the opera house in Toronto and another one in Ontario.  The glass walls, intended to unite the street outside with the interior of the theatre, were completely unsuited to the location of the new building. In Toronto, for example, the opera house is on a square, but in St Petersburg the area cleared for construction is separated from residential buildings by narrow streets, which makes opening the theatre up to the outside world through glass façades impossible.  Inhabitants of the residential buildings would have been forced to admire what was happening in the theatre and suffering from the effects of the permanent lighting in the building; theatregoers would not have seen a townscape, but simply other people’s apartments. As a result, the only glass is to be found at the corner of the new building which faces on to Theatre Square.  The remaining façades are more or less blank walls.

'Opponents of the new building (probably the majority) have no trouble coming up with various comparisons to describe it, the most common being ‘shopping mall’ or ‘department store.’'

The old Mariinsky Theatre is connected to the new building by a glass bridge, which intrudes into the architectural ensemble (which is protected by a conservation order) abording the Kryukov Canal.  This bridge has not yet received all the necessary permissions from the Ministry of Culture and other essential government departments. But this bothered neither the constructors nor the clients.

Another factor in the exterior of Mariinsky-2 crowns the absurdity of the situation. I have already mentioned that some buildings were demolished to make way for the new building.  According to Russian law, in the event an architectural monument is knocked down, it absolutely must be re-erected. This requirement has been formally met: a strange construction vaguely reminiscent of the Lithuanian Market (and actually the arch saved from the original building) has been built on to the wall facing Kryukov Canal.  So the monument has been recreated, not in its original place but where it did not get in the way of the construction; it looks out of place and quite ridiculous, rather more like a fridge magnet than a cultural heritage site.

So, St Petersburg saw the Mariinsky-2 building, and shuddered. Opinions differ: opponents of the new building (probably the majority) have no trouble coming up with various comparisons to describe it, the most common being ‘shopping mall’ or ‘department store.’  Defenders of the new theatre argue ‘We should be pleased that something has at last been built,’ or ‘It doesn’t look as awful as everyone says’ and ‘Just consider the interior design and the wonderful acoustics in the auditorium.’ Interestingly, no one has yet come forward with a ringing endorsement of the architecture.  The suggestion, apparently, is that one ignores the construction, which has so disfigured the cityscape, regarding it as essential payment for wonderful sound, showy decoration and, last but not least, the peace that comes with the end of a building project.  It could, after all, have been much worse.

Now a fact of life...

What is perhaps the most dramatic part of the situation is that the citizens of St Petersburg will in the end have to come to terms with the mediocre façade of the building, out of proportion, ugly of itself and an unwelcome intrusion in the cityscape, much of which is covered by conservation orders. This is what is to be expected from construction without a design and choosing an architect with no competition. Could it have been any other way?  When was the ‘point of no return’?

Some years ago a new term appeared in St Petersburg – ‘a town planning error’.  It has not yet been enshrined in law, but can be heard on the lips of town planners, experts, even high-ranking officials up to and including the governor. It describes architectural failures too, as well as town planning absurdities. Mariinsky-2 clearly comes into this category.  When putting up a building of this size – and how justified its size is, or how rationally it is being used are subjects for a separate conversation – one has first and foremost to consider how it will look to pedestrians. The bigger the building, the more open space required so that it can be seen in the round.  Looking at photographs of Mariinsky-2, you could be forgiven for thinking that the photographer, trying to make a point, had chosen the least satisfactory angle for his picture. But there is no other and that’s the problem.  The building was artificially squeezed into a fairly tight site, where previously there had been buildings of various heights which occupied in total a much smaller space. The integrity of the city fabric has been torn apart by the construction which is so out of scale, the resulting building itself has suffered in that it has no vantage points, and several blocks of the surrounding built-up area have been damaged. In this sense, by the time the tender for the new architectural concept was announced, it would already have been virtually impossible to select anything acceptable: the size and location of the proposed building pre-determined its fate as an error of town planning.

Mariinsky-2 has been quite an unpleasant episode ... It creates a precedent for allowing a beautiful idea to justify the demolition of an urban environment — one of the most valuable components of our city

The situation was not helped by the usual Russian desire to keep the authorities properly informed, to look as though something was happening, and to maintain until the very last moment the pretence that everything is just fine.  If the Perrault design had been properly studied at the right time and the architects had not been compelled to come up with façades for a building whose size and groundplan had already been determined, the result could have been considerably better quality. Finally, no grandiose plans can ever excuse the destruction of a built-up area of historical significance. It is not easy to fit contemporary designs into the existing architectural fabric of the city, though building something ‘in the style of the 19th century’ would have been even more absurd. The best way forward might have been to find another building and adapt it for theatre use (which would have been difficult, of course) or choose another location for a building of this kind.

The construction of Mariinsky-2 has been quite an unpleasant episode in the history of St Petersburg’s contemporary town planning. It creates a precedent for allowing a beautiful idea to justify the demolition of an urban environment, which is actually one of the most valuable components of our city as a cultural heritage site. References to the uniqueness and significance of the site have allowed height restrictions to be flouted, as they have the ban on destroying monuments of historic and cultural importance. It is a crass example of how construction in the real world can be at variance with legal rules and regulations governing construction.

But at the same time the number of scandals connected with the construction and the opening of Mariinsky-2, the criticism and the project’s negative image, including in the international media, give grounds for some hope that this very obvious example of a town planning error will ensure that the same mistake will not be repeated in the future.

Editors’ conclusion

Gergiev has stated that his new 4750-seat complex will bring in annual box office revenue of $144 million. ‘It will be serving hundreds of thousands of people,’ says the maestro. ‘It will make Saint Petersburg even more importantly one of the capitals in Europe for culture — certainly for musical culture’. However, apart from the very short summer season, the Mariinsky Theatre has not always been able to fill its old building, so will he be able to fill three spaces? Will the new theatre be the jewel in the crown of the Mariinsky Theatre complex or a white elephant?

Thumbnail: (cc) Wikimedia Commons/E.Rosen

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