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From Toronto with love, a new theatre for St. Petersburg Add to ...

Jack Diamond normally isn't a vodka man.

But he certainly was yesterday as he celebrated the Russian government's announcement that the Canadian architect had won an international competition to design one of the world's most sought-after commissions, the new Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

Mr. Diamond, 76, was in the former Russian capital to hear the good news from some of Russia's most powerful politicians, including the ministers of economic development and culture, as well as Valery Gergiev, the influential and energetic artistic director of the Mariinsky Theatre who first encouraged Mr. Diamond's company, Diamond + Schmitt Architects of Toronto, to vie for the commission.

"We first of all had some wine and then, of course, vodka," Mr. Diamond said in a phone interview from his hotel room - the "we" a reference to Diamond + Schmitt's St. Petersburg project partners, KB ViPS Architects. "I'm not a vodka drinker but, yes, I had one this time ... It's quite a thrill." Winning the competition, that is. The vodka, not so much.

Diamond + Schmitt prevailed over four other finalists - one from Germany and three Russian firms - to win the Mariinsky which, with a budget of €295-million (about $452-million, all of which will be paid by the Russian government) and a completion date of no later than December 2011, has been hyped as "Russia's most important building project in 70 years" and, in Mr. Diamond's own words, "the first major opera house to be built [in Russia]since the czars."

"It speaks well for Canadian architecture," he said. "I know we've got stiff competition at home ... and for us to succeed on this international scale, well, that says something. I thought we'd put in a pretty, strong, competitive bid."

The Diamond + Schmitt/KB ViPS building, with its 2,000 seats, will complement the extant 1,600-seat Mariinsky - completed in 1860 and home to what used to be known as the Imperial Russian Ballet - and the nearby Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall, which was designed by French architects Xavier Fabre and opened in spring 2007 with room for 1,100 patrons. The completion of the new Mariinsky will result in what some have called St. Petersburg's equivalent of New York's Lincoln Center.

Said Mr. Gergiev of Mr. Diamond and his principal architect, Gary McCluskie, in a media release yesterday: "Clearly the architect[s]knew what was needed and delivered on all those large challenges ...We are delighted to be working with [them]in creating what I am confident will be Europe's greatest new opera house."

The Mariinsky commission derives directly from Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts which Diamond + Schmitt designed, on a $186-million budget, as the home of the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada. The Mariinsky's Mr. Gergiev was taken on a tour of the centre by the then-COC artistic director Richard Bradshaw in February, 2007, while visiting as guest conductor for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

In an interview from London last evening, Mr. Gergiev, 56, said seeing the Toronto opera house two years ago and hearing the story of the decades it took to get it built "altogether made a very strong emotional picture, a story I admired and respected."

Mr. Gergiev also was impressed by the building's universally admired acoustics and, more importantly perhaps, "its practicality - it was smart, effective, very beautiful and finally, not the most expensive."

However, Mr. Gergiev already had an architect for his new Mariinsky: France's Dominique Perrault, who had won a high-profile juried competition in 2003 with a design one critic likened to a "glass-and-golf snowflake." Tellingly, Mr. Gergiev didn't like it - yesterday he described it as "very flamboyant, very fractured and not easy to build" - and neither did many residents of St. Petersburg, who nicknamed it "the golden potato."

Finally, after seeing projected costs swell to $244-million (U.S.) from $100-million, the Russian government announced last November it was killing the Perrault plan. In the meantime, Mr. Gergiev was pushing hard to give the commission to the Toronto architect and his associates while the country's culture minister wanted Moscow architect Alexei Denisov at the helm.

However, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin overruled both Mr. Gergiev and the culture minister, announcing in early June that there would be a new, albeit speedy competition. A long list of 15 was created first, then a shortlist of five. "We wanted to give the impression that although we were in a tense situation and we didn't want to delay forever ... no one felt like it was the best way to simply sit down quietly and say, 'You are a great architect; just come and do it,'" Mr. Gergiev explained.

Mr. Diamond, who was born in South Africa but has made Canada his home since the mid-1960s, calls his plan "a contemporary version of the St. Petersburg cityscape."

As the world's great cities go, St. Petersburg is one of the newest, erected on marshlands near the Gulf of Finland in the early 18th century at the behest of Peter the Great. Mr. Diamond's modernist structure in effect mimics the famous consistency of St. Petersburg's typology and topography, using "a masonry base with vertically proportioned apertures and an elaborate metal roof." As with Toronto's Four Seasons, there's lots of glass, "affording a spectacular panorama of the St. Petersburg's cityscape."

"Choosing a North American architect is, of course, good news for relationships" between the West and the former Soviet Union, Mr. Gergiev said. "I hope it will be taken very positively in Canada, in U.S. and certainly in my country. People expect this co-operation to be a very lucky one and I really want us to do our best in terms of aesthetics and acoustics, just as you did in Toronto a few years ago. In a way, I hope this will be like a twin-cities behaviour, sharing cultural capital."

The Russian project is the second big plum to come to Diamond + Schmitt as a result of the Four Seasons Centre. In March this year, the firm, along with Montreal's SNC-Lavalin, won an international design competition for a new, 1,900-seat concert hall in Montreal budgeted at $270-million. As with the Mariinsky, the Montreal venue is scheduled to open in 2011.

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