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‘People Don’t Like Change’ -- Architect Defends New Mariinsky Theater

Architect Jack Diamond (right) listens to acoustic tests of the new Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg earlier this year.
Architect Jack Diamond (right) listens to acoustic tests of the new Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg earlier this year.
The long-awaited new Mariinsky Theater opens on May 2 with a star-studded performance that will be attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and a crowd of select guests.

At a cost of some $700 million, the Mariinsky II is one of the most expensive cultural projects ever built. But it has drawn mixed reviews in St. Petersburg, with critics saying the slick structure jars with the city’s elegant classical architecture.

RFE/RL’s Claire Bigg spoke recently to Jack Diamond, the building’s Toronto-based architect.

RFE/RL: Please describe the concept behind your design. What were the biggest challenges of working in a city like St. Petersburg?

Jack Diamond: The challenge is how to do a contemporary building in a city of such overwhelmingly important classical architecture. That is the great challenge. And it is in the context of having the historical, venerated Mariinsky Theater of old right next door.

The Mariinsky II is a very large structure itself because it will have the production facilities for the old and the new house. It fills an entire block. So the first decision made was to have a continuity of the streetscape and that the Mariinsky II would make its contribution to that amazing consistency of St. Petersburg.

That is, of course, an approach which some people think is not appropriate, because they want to see an extravagant and novel, free-standing structure, as is seen in some places in Europe. Our decision was that this is not appropriate in St. Petersburg in this circumstance. So we have used the elements of the old architecture, which are a masonry base and a metal roof. Instead of a classical portico, we have used great structural glass bay-windows.

'A Democratic Dimension'

[It] has a new dimension which is entirely consistent to the spirit of our time -- that is, a democratic one. Old opera houses had an elitist sense to them. You could not see inside. Quite often, there were separate entrances for those who paid less for their seats and those who entered through the main portico. This is different now. And the transparency of these bay-windows allows people to see inside and, just as importantly, get framed views of their city from the inside. That removes the kind of exclusiveness, the elitism of the opera house.

PHOTO GALLERY: St. Petersburg's Old And New Mariinsky Theaters

However, once you get inside, all bets are off. The public areas have an exuberance and a fun because going to the opera house today is, in a sense, in competition with people who can watch it on television, see it on their computer screen, can have videos and play them at will. The difference is that going to an event is a gregarious activity. And I often think that before the show begins, and during intermission, it is not the musicians who are the performers, it is the audience.

So you have a modest exterior that is paying respect to the classical architecture of St. Petersburg, you have the exuberance of the public areas, which I think people will find dazzling. Then you enter the inner sanctum, which is comfortable, it has a sense of cohesion and its presence is felt but it is not an ego trip of the architect to overpower the room, because the focus should be on the stage and on the sound. Those are the things that drove the design.

RFE/RL: The Mariinsky II opens its doors for the first time on [May 2]. So far, St. Petersburg residents have only seen its exterior, and opinions are deeply divided. Conductor Valery Gergiev, the much-respected Mariinsky Theater’s artistic and general director, has praised the new building. But others have criticized it as bland and said it clashes with St. Petersburg’s unique architecture. There is even a petition to have it razed. Were you expecting such hostile reactions?

Diamond: I had exactly the same reaction when we did the opera house in Toronto. People wanted red velvet and guild and classicals of the old kind, they railed against the modernity. Once it opened, of course, opinion changed. It has been open six years and, honestly, I have yet to go to a performance when one or more people whom I don’t know come up to me and say: ‘Thank you, we love your house.’ And they are not doing it to flatter me. They are doing it because they feel moved to come and say so.

My answer is that the classical architecture had an authenticity about the spirit of its time. What an artist does is to be authentic to his or her own time. 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. I will not please everybody. But I can assure you that once it is open, there will be more people who are pleased than who are not.