No shots were fired, but Jack Diamond can fairly claim to have survived a land war in Russia. The Toronto architect’s firm, Diamond Schmitt, has prevailed where two high-flying architects failed, by completing a much-contested St. Petersburg opera house against long odds and innumerable obstacles.
The building, which opens May 2, will provide a second mainstage and full production facilities for itself and the venerable Mariinsky Theatre, whose 1860 neoclassical building stands right next door. The new 10-level structure is immense – 79,000 square metres, or three times the size of Diamond Schmitt’s Four Seasons Centre in downtown Toronto – and so is its cost: an estimated $717-million.
An acoustical trial last week, with full orchestra and chorus, drew favourable comment from Izvestia critic Oleg Karmunin, and from Mariinsky artistic director Valery Gergiev, who said, “On the whole, I am very pleased.” Karmunin also remarked on the “strong impression” made by a lobby interior “decorated with glowing, honey-yellow onyx, and studded with chandeliers made from Swarovski crystal, boasting a cascade of glass staircases rising into the air.”
Comment from outside the building, however, has mostly been scathing. Ever since the exterior form became evident at street level, in early February, eminent citizens have slammed the design as dull and undistinguished, more like a supermarket than a new landmark for Russia’s most elegant city. Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum and a member of the jury that gave the project to Diamond Schmitt in 2009, called the result “an architectural mistake.” A petition to tear it down gathered thousands of signatures.
Diamond, in a phone interview earlier this week, dismissed the carping as “frivolous and stupid. This is drive-by criticism. It doesn’t bother me the tiniest bit.”
He heard much the same response before the Four Seasons opened in 2006, and has the same answer this time: Wait till you get inside.
By all accounts, it was the inside experience at the Four Seasons that sold Gergiev on the Diamond approach, which is more about function than about making a big impression on passersby.
The first two designs cued up for the new building, by American Eric Owen Moss (2002) and French architect Dominique Perrault (2003), had lots of exterior pizzazz.
But those, too, were mocked by the locals, as “the garbage bags” and “the crumpled tin foil,” respectively. Perrault laboured for four years to get his theatre built, before being dismissed in January, 2007. The official word was that his design was impractical and not in accordance with local building practice. In a scathing exit interview Perrault declared himself thoroughly stymied by an opaque bureaucratic process that was “so stupid.” When Diamond Schmitt was hired in the summer of 2009, work was still continuing on a modified version of the Perrault design, without the original architect, but with a German acoustical firm hired by the government: Müller-BBM, which worked on the restoration of La Fenice in Venice. Diamond and his colleagues spent six months fighting through a byzantine permit process to get charge of the project, as the foundation for the prior design rose inexorably from the boggy St. Petersburg ground.
Diamond got his plans approved more or less in the nick of time, he said. The one remaining element from the Perrault design is a wall that curves around the rear of the 2,000-seat auditorium. It was this wall that Diamond clad in honey-coloured onyx, through which an array of LED lights set off a glow visible from the street that “somebody very poetically said was like molten sun.” Diamond likened it to the Amber Room at St. Petersburg’s Catherine Palace.
Jewel-like luminosity was also a feature of the Perrault and Moss designs, as well as of 2003 proposals by Turkish architect Alper Aytac and by Dutch architect Erick van Egeraat, who envisioned an effect similar to the onyx wall, but with glowing alabaster. Diamond has certainly borrowed from his own past work, repeating the open glass facade, glass staircase and upper-story amphitheatre of the Four Seasons, as well as the subdued palette of its auditorium.
The back of house in St. Petersburg is all business, with five auxiliary stages, four rehearsal halls, and the capacity to build and store productions and easily transport them to the old theatre. The extent of production facilities is part of the reason for the sky-high cost, Diamond said, though since the government retained full control of the purse-strings, he doesn’t really know where the money went. The initial 2002 figure of $100-million “had no meaning,” he said, since it was made before any detailed cost estimation had been done.
A few things have not gone Diamond’s way. A streetscape plan that was to have transformed the area into a coherent arts district has been put on hold. The facade of an 18th-century market that was torn down to make way for the new building was “stuck on in the most awkward way,” contrary to Diamond’s plan to have it stand apart from the structure. And the sheer glass of the front entrance is not entirely iron-free, so it lacks the extreme clarity of the Four Seasons glass wall. “But that gave the glass a greenish tinge that picks up exactly on the colour of the old Mariinsky, so people think it was deliberate,” the architect said with a laugh.
The theatre opens with three days of opera, ballet and concert performances. Only after that, said Diamond, will St. Petersburg begin to understand what its new theatre is all about.