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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).
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.