Tuesday, August 30, 2016


St. Petersburg's New Mariinsky Theater Gets Mixed Reviews

St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Second Stage (right) features soaring glass walls and a rooftop ampitheater located across the canal from the grand original theater (left).
St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Second Stage (right) features soaring glass walls and a rooftop ampitheater located across the canal from the grand original theater (left).
By Claire Bigg
After a decade of controversy, setbacks, and last-minute twists, the scaffolding finally came down three weeks ago from St. Petersburg's second Mariinsky Theater.

For many city residents it was a sobering moment.

With its six stages and six rehearsal rooms, the vast structure will breathe new life into the world-renowned Mariinsky troupe, long restricted by the modest capacities of its original 19th-century theater.

But its slick facade and soaring glass windows sit uneasily with many St. Petersburg residents, who say the construction clashes with the city's traditional architecture.

Local preservationists have been among the most vocal critics of the venue, designed by Canadian firm Diamond Schmitt and scheduled to open on May 1 across the canal from the original theater.

Yulia Minutina is a coordinator for the preservationist organization Living City. She was specifically critical of how the facade of an old market was incorporated into the design.

"What we have is an impersonal building that does not blend in with its surroundings and that is not interesting in itself," Minutina says. "The wall of the Litovsky Market, which looks as though it was pasted onto the edge of the building, is particularly unsightly."

The Mariinsky's revered artistic director, conductor Valery Gergiyev, has been ecstatic over the new design. But this has not prevented the new opera house from coming under stinging criticism in the Russian media and among bloggers.

Not So Bad?

Detractors have called it plain, bulky, and lacking personality. It has been compared to a department store or an office block, and an online petition to have it razed has gathered thousands of signatures.

The exorbitant price tag -- $629 million in state funds, up from an initial $100 million -- has further spurred public hostility.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the State Hermitage Museum and a cultural heavyweight in St. Petersburg, joined the ranks of critics this month when he called the building "an architectural mistake."

"Many people dislike it. In my opinion, it has nothing going for it. But it's what is inside that is important, let us see what's inside," Piotrovsky told a local television channel. "I will also add that the old Mariinsky Theater building is not the best masterpiece of world architecture either. But that's not what all this is about. This is about lessons."

A scale model shows a design for the Mariinsky Theater by French architect Dominique Perrault, which ran into difficulties and was abandoned.
A scale model shows a design for the Mariinsky Theater by French architect Dominique Perrault, which ran into difficulties and was abandoned.

Piotrovsky said he was on the original jury for the project and had voted for a proposal by French architect Dominique Perrault, a futuristic structure of black marble covered by a gilded glass dome.

Perrault easily won the tender in 2003, but his project soon ran into hurdles linked to St. Petersburg's damp climate. It was found to breach Russian building codes and the design was finally dropped in 2007, after millions of dollars had already been spent on construction.

Time Will Tell

The Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects were chosen to rework the project and faced the challenge of incorporating the existing foundation into its design. Jack Diamond, the designer of the new Mariinsky, says the public should not judge the building before seeing what he describes as its "dazzling" interiors.

"People don't like change, they love their old St. Petersburg as I do, but I honor it by being modest on the exterior and giving them an opera house, hopefully, that can stand with the best in the world," Diamond says.

Inside, the opera house features vast open spaces, floor-to-ceiling windows, back-lit panels made of honey-colored Italian onyx, and glass staircases that Diamond says will give the venue "a sense of occasion."

Diamond, 80, says the bay windows will not only provide panoramic views of the old theater but will also give the building a "democratic spirit" by allowing passersby to peer inside.

As for the criticism leveled against his design, Diamond chooses to laugh it off. The architect says he is confident the new Mariinsky Theater will eventually win the hearts of St. Petersburg's picky inhabitants. "I had exactly the same reaction when we did the opera house in Toronto: people wanted red velvet and guild, they railed against the modernity. Once it opened, of course, opinions changed," he says. "I will not please everybody, but I can assure you that once it's open, there will be more people who are pleased than who are not."

PHOTO GALLERY: Mariinsky 2 is hardly the first public building, monument, or performance space to elicit withering rebukes from those it was intended to serve. Here's a look at a few public buildings whose designs were widely ridiculed. In many cases, time has softened those opinions.
  • The Eiffel Tower in Paris, built as an entrance arch to the 1889 World's Fair, has become one of the world's iconic public monuments. Before its opening, however, the tower was criticized by many artists of the day, who objected to "this useless and monstrous" tower. It was an immediate hit with the public, however, and was allowed to remain standing, despite architect Gustav Eiffel only having a permit allowing the tower to stand for 20 years.
  • Prague's New Stage theater, an extension of the stately National Theater of 1881, was designed by Karel Prager, a top architect from the communist era. Completed in 1983, its exterior of opaque glass blocks has famously been described as resembling frozen urine.
  • The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, which opened in 1977, is notable for its inside-out design, with its exposed network of multicolored pipes, tubes, and ducts. With no real facade, the museum's design was trashed by many critics at the time. Art lovers, however, continue to flock to the building, with more than 150 million visitors logged since its opening.
  • Architect Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao wowed most of the world when it opened in the Spanish city in 1997. But it was not without its detractors. The Project for Public Spaces said it "fails miserably as a public space, missing a significant opportunity to celebrate and support the cultural and community life that is pulsating throughout the city." The museum is credited with helping to revive the city.
  • Now considered a landmark of modern architecture, New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and opened in 1959, was criticized at the time as overshadowing the art contained inside, which the design of the building often made difficult to hang. A letter of protest was written by more than 20 artists who objected to having their work displayed in the Guggenheim.
  • The Louvre Pyramid in Paris was designed by architect I.M. Pei and opened to the public in 1989. At the time, the design of the modern glass pyramid -- set smack dab amid the classical lines of the old Louvre building -- upset many critics and members of the public. It has ultimately become a tourist attraction in its own right and one of the must-sees for visitors to Paris now.
  • The Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool, England, was designed by Frederick Gibberd and consecrated in 1967. It is derisively referred to as the "Mersey Funnel" by locals and almost immediately after its opening started exhibiting a number of design flaws, such as a leaky roof. CNN recently voted it one of the world's worst buildings.
  • The Experience Music Project in Seattle, which opened in 2000, was also designed by architect Frank Gehry. It was immediately criticized as ugly and an eyesore but has since grown on the locals. "The building is strange. We can agree on that," the "Seattle Times" wrote on the building's 10th anniversary. "But is it provocative-in-a-good-way strange or just too strange?"
  • The National Library of Belarus in Minsk opened in 2006, designed by Mikhail Vinogradov and Viktor Kramarenko. It is shaped like a rhombicuboctahedron -- that is, it has eight triangular and 18 square faces. Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" called it one of the 21 ugliest buildings ever designed and built.
  • The National University Library in Pristina, Kosovo, was designed by Andrija Mutnjakovic of Croatia and opened in 1982. It was also voted one of the world's ugliest buildings by "The Daily Telegraph." It features 73 small glass domes and is covered by a metal fishing net, of sorts. One travel guide describes it as "simultaneously gorgeous and absurd."
  • The Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw opened in 1955 as a gift from the Soviet Union to the people of Poland. It has long engendered negative feelings, not only because of its imposing presence on the landscape but due to its obvious Soviet-style architecture. It's often referred to as "Stalin's Syringe." It currently houses an exhibition space and offices.
  • Czech architect Jan Kaplicky's design for a new Czech National Library in Prague was widely criticized when it was unveiled in 2007. Often called "The Blob" or "The Octopus," it was criticized by Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who was quoted as saying he would prevent the construction of the building with his own body if it came to that. The design was later dropped.
  • Bertrand Delanoe, the mayor of Paris, was among those opposed to the proposed design of the massive Russian Orthodox Spiritual and Cultural Center along the banks of the Seine River. He dismissed the architecture as "pastiche," a "hodgepodge," and "mediocre." Because of all the objections, a building permit was not approved and the project has been sent back to the drawing board.

Claire Bigg

Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to BiggC@rferl.org​


This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Jack from: US
February 19, 2013 15:00
to invite French "architects" was particularly insane. Anyone walking in central Paris will notice how tasteless modern French architecture is. One can see beautiful 18th-century buildings sitting next to faceless dilapidated blocks of concrete erected in 1960-ies as if they were built by Nikita Kruschev himself.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
February 20, 2013 08:55
That's true, Jack, the one building in the historical center of Paris that is particularly out of place is the Tour Montparnasse - it looks that absurd that I would have gladly given its authors for adoption in the United States when they still were kids. Here one may find pictures of this architectural crime against humanity: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tour_Montparnasse
I mean, looking at it, you think that only someone as perverse as Frau Merkel or Hillary Clinton could have invented something like that.
By the way, talking about France and Europe in general, why is it that the RFE/RL staff has not found time to write an article on the fact that the govt of BULGARIA has just had to resign, following days of protests of citizens of the country against the all-invading AUSTERITY which has over the last 4 years become the most salient distinctive feature of the European social model? Aha, I guess, the RFE/RL did not do so, because they were too busy following architectural developments in Russian cities...
In Response

by: Mikhail from: London
February 22, 2013 01:01
Dear Jack, the idea of squeezing such a big structure into the district that can be named "The Venice of the North" with its canals, old apartment buildings, churches etc., with its damp marshy soil - this very idea was totally insane. No-one would mind this structure just a kilometre or two away. And thing is that the French architect had won a competition back in 2003 while Canadian mediocrities were simply hired to built what they were told to later in 2008 or so. It's all sad but let's take it with a smile - great Mr. Gergiev will have to conduct operas in a barn. It's a proper punishment for self-asmiration.

Most Popular

Editor's Picks