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The Mariinsky site in St.Petersburg. The original adjacent Mariinsky Theatre opened in 1861.

Through no fault of their own, Jack Diamond and Gary McCluskie showed up a little late for the building of their new Russian opera house in St. Petersburg. About six years late.

Foundation work was well under way when the two architects from Toronto learned in 2009 that their firm, Diamond Schmitt Architects, had won an international competition to design a major second home for the prestigious Mariinsky Theatre. That news did not slow the workers on the site, who went right on executing the plan drawn up years earlier by French architect Dominique Perrault, who had been dismissed from the project in late 2008.

"The formality of written agreements in Russia is supreme," says Diamond, who soon learned that his commission by the Ministry of Culture did not entitle him to build anything. He still had to get his new design through the exacting permits process of the local planning authority, and until he did, work would continue on what was essentially a zombie hall, clinically dead but still lumbering ahead with its papers in order.

"I was shocked," he says. "They went on building the foundations of the previous scheme."

The team already on the project, including the Russian partnering firm, KB ViPS Architects, had no choice: Stopping work could have meant stiff penalties for breach of contract.

"They said they would support us in getting our scheme made the official scheme," McCluskie says. "But that process was incredible."

Official inertia strongly supported continuing with what had been approved, even though the final building outlined on those documents had been deemed unworkable. Russian leader Vladimir Putin had said the opera house would open in 2011, and nobody was eager to delay that date by rewriting the approvals.

"At one point, the Minister of Culture said to me, 'Why don't you just change the façade?'" Diamond recalls. "I said, 'There's a connection between the façade and what goes on inside, Minister.'"

Diamond had the support of Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky's hard-driving artistic director, who had been impressed, during a 2007 visit to Toronto, by the Four Seasons Centre, another Diamond Schmitt opera house. However, Gergiev had "great influence but no power" over the wheels of state officialdom, Diamond says.

For the Canadians, the project became a Kafkaesque race against time, as the foundations of the zombie building rose from the depths of the St. Petersburg mud. Diamond figured he had to get the approvals before the workers reached four metres below the surface, or he would never be able to bridge the differences between his design and the old one.

In that respect, it was perhaps fortunate that Peter the Great built the city on marshland. The swampy ground forced the construction engineers to drive 450 caissons – hollow cylinders used for bridges and dams – to a depth of 32 metres, with a grid of raft-like concrete supports near the top. They also had to build a huge submerged retaining wall to prevent vibrations from cracking the neighbouring apartments.

"At minus four metres, we made a compromise scheme that accepted components of the base, and even of the external wall, and our scheme got approved," Diamond says. The papers were pushed through at an all-day meeting in January, 2010, chaired by a facilitator who refused to let anyone leave the room until an agreement was signed.

Left in place were all of the previous design's back-of-house areas (developed in part by Artec Consultants and the Russian theatre supply firm TDM), including rehearsal halls for opera and ballet, auxiliary stages and dressing rooms.

Diamond Schmitt got control of the exterior, the auditorium and the front-of-house areas, as well as the outdoor public areas linking the cluster of arts buildings in the Mariinsky district. Key to that part of the project is a brick pedestrian promenade that will run from the St. Petersburg Conservatory along the canal that borders on the old Mariinsky theatre, to the front entrance of the new theatre's very restricted site.

Gergiev's ambition is to transform the area, which also includes the recently built Mariinsky concert hall, into an arts complex comparable to New York's Lincoln Center or the Barbican in London.

Even apart from the hunt for permits, the tale of this project is long, and has a shifting cast of characters large enough for a mid-sized Russian novel. Diamond Schmitt inherited several partners, including a German acoustical firm, Mueller-BBM Group, whose approach – used for the renovation of La Fenice in Venice – was quite different from what the Canadians are accustomed to. They also had to absorb one prominent feature of the old auditorium design: a curved wall that would have marked the exterior of Perrault's wide, short audience chamber. Diamond's design will slip a more elongated hall inside that curve, and use the space between the walls to house technical equipment.

The new hall will riff on the neo-classical style of the old Mariinsky (built in 1860) through a series of "syncopated" windows in the pale stone exterior. In other respects, the theatre, which will share sets with the old hall via an elevated bridge, looks a lot like the Four Seasons, from the luminous lobby atrium to the glass staircase connecting all levels in the public areas.

Further plot twists in the Mariinsky saga put 2011 out of reach for any kind of opening, but Putin's revised end date of 2012 was met, at least symbolically. In June, a concert event was held in the new hall's choral rehearsal hall, which had been rushed to completion just for that purpose. The rest of the building should be ready for the next White Nights festival in the spring of 2013. The old Mariinsky will then be renovated – and godspeed to whoever has to get the permits for that job.