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The Art of the Possible

September 06, 2013 /

Diamond-Schmitt-Mariinsky-II-Saint-Petersburg-22.jpgMariinsky II by Diamond + Schmitt Architects. View from the canal. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

It is not an exclamation point, it is a comma./ Jack Diamond, Diamond + Schmitt Architects

By Jakob Harry Hybel

The pressure was on Saint Petersburg's recently completed Mariinsky II, right from the project's infancy. As the first major opera house to be build in Russia since the time of the tzars, it was meant to usher in a new era in Russia's second largest city and solidify its position as the country's cultural capital. Yet no-one could foresee the countless controversies that were to follow.

It only gradually became clear, as one architect after another came and went, the budget skyrocketed and the construction difficulties piled up, that the Mariinsky II was probably not destined to fulfill its initial promise of greatness. Now, some three months after its opening, the public verdict seems to be in - and it is indeed almost entirely unfavourable.

You can ask pretty much anyone in Saint Petersburg and they will have an opinion on their new opera house. The glass shoe-box it has been called and it is either too modern or not modern enough, depending on who you ask.
     

Diamond-Schmitt-Mariinsky-II-Saint-Petersburg-4.jpgMariinsky II by Diamond + Schmitt Architects. Interior view towards the old Mariinsky. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel 

But let's wind back and start at the beginning. The controversial story of the opera house began over a decade ago, when California architect Eric Owen Moss was asked to design a new building across the canal from the old Mariinsky, a pale-green Neoclassical building dating from 1860, by the theater's artistic director, Valery Gergiev. 

After a great deal of political tug-of-war, however, Gergiev was overruled and an international competition held. Renowned French architect Dominique Perrault won with a spectacular design which locals nicknamed "the golden potato" and critics deemed too flamboyant and outlandish in a city known and admired for the consistency of its Neo-classical buildings. As it turned out, it was also entirely unbuildable as Saint Petersburg's soft soil could not hold its weight.  So ultimately, Perrault's design had to be abandoned, despite the fact that its construction was well underway.

Another competition was hastily organized, and this time the commission fell to Canadians Diamond + Schmitt with a proposal closely resembling their Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. They were, however, forced to implement several elements already constructed on the site into their design.
     

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Mariinsky II. The initial competition's winning entry by Dominique Perrault. Model photo by George Fessy

Diamond-Schmitt-Mariinsky-II-Saint-Petersburg-2.JPGMariinsky II by Diamond + Schmitt Architects. The foyer. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Not surprisingly, all things considered, the result seems to be a clutter of scattered ideas with an odd bit of Neo-classical ersatz here, some amber-colored onyx there. Architecturally, quite a mess - a fact the building's architect Jack Diamond was the first to acknowledge, saying apologetically: "It is not an exclamation point, it is a comma."

That may be, but the fact still remains that Diamond + Schmitt were dealt an almost impossible hand they were forced to do their best with what was already there. The fact that they have managed to work around the leftovers from another architect's half-finished project and still make a building with distinct qualities is in itself an admirable feat.

So while the Mariinsky II might overall be a comma, serving as a reminder that every buildings is essentially the product of a series of compromises, one thing did particularly impress me on my recent visit there for the annual Stars of the White Night Festival: the acoustics are incredible, crisp and clear - and this, after all, is what an opera house should be judged upon.
     

Diamond-Schmitt-Mariinsky-II-Saint-Petersburg-10.JPGMariinsky II by Diamond + Schmitt Architects. Concert hall. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Diamond-Schmitt-Mariinsky-II-Saint-Petersburg-11.JPGMariinsky II by Diamond + Schmitt Architects. The curved onyx-clad wall enveloping the concert hall was a leftover from Dominique Perrault's original design. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Diamond-Schmitt-Mariinsky-II-Saint-Petersburg-17.JPGMariinsky II by Diamond + Schmitt Architects. Foyer staircase. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

Diamond-Schmitt-Mariinsky-II-Saint-Petersburg-3.JPGMariinsky II by Diamond + Schmitt Architects. Foyer staircase. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

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Mariinsky II by Diamond + Schmitt Architects. Photo by Jakob Harry Hybel

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Last updated: September 22, 2014

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