A Long Journey Home

June 28, 2012
Despite the late hour, the sun wasn't setting over St. Petersburg as maestro Valery Gergiev welcomed 100 guests at 11 p.m. for a private inaugural concert at the new Mariinsky Theatre. Beyond the windows of what will be the staff cafeteria, the city's historic skyline shimmered in the pale light of the White Nights. The celebrated conductor says he hopes the new opera house—most of which is still a construction site—would be a place for music for years to come. Then he corrects himself: "For centuries."

The new building is one of Mr. Gergiev's legacies to the renowned Mariinsky. The politically well-connected director, who is also principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, is famously ambitious in his vision. In more than two decades under his energetic direction, the 200-year-old theater—considered one of the best in the world—has expanded its scope and reach to become a major cultural export.

The Mariinsky's opera, ballet and orchestra are expected to move into the modern, glass-and-limestone structure by this time next year. The beloved 19th-century theater, which has played host to the premieres of such notable works as Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" and choreographer Marius Petipa's "Swan Lake" revival, will continue to be used after undergoing renovation. The iconic green facade stands across a narrow canal from the new building.

The journey to find a more modern house for the theater has been a long one, with operatic plot twists and plenty of drama.

More than a decade ago, Mr. Gergiev began pushing for a new theater, saying the Mariinsky's rising star was being limited by the constraints imposed by the 1860 building. The Russian government agreed to fund the project and in 2002, Los Angeles architect Eric Owen Moss, whose aggressively contemporary creations have transformed Culver City, Calif., into an avant-garde showcase, won the competition to design the new building. He was also chosen to create a cultural and commercial center in New Holland, a derelict former naval shipyard located nearby.

Mr. Moss says he saw his theater design—with its granite facade broken by steel and swaths of uneven glass—as an architectural means to help the city accelerate its transition from the past to the future. "In the 2000s, we were looking positively at the transformation of Russia," he says. "There was the idea that post-Soviet Russia would be a very forward-looking, democratic place."

The radical design caused a sensation. But in a city that counts its architectural unity among its manifold charms, it had plenty of opponents. When the project was presented at the 2002 Venice Biennale as part of the Russian pavilion, David Sarkisian, the exhibition curator and then-director of the Schusev State Museum of Architecture, voiced concern about what might be lost. "The fascination of a place like the New Holland lies in that it is unique picturesque ruins," he said in an interview with Mr. Gergiev, published in the exhibition catalog. "It is a place where you can walk alone for hours and encounter nobody, like in some abandoned ancient city. This is poetic and attractive. Hundreds of tourists, cafes and stores is something less than poetic."

"Don't you think we have too much poetry of dying here?" countered Mr. Gergiev. Still, the conductor distanced himself from the plan, saying controversy over the design had caused delays in the project.

A new competition was held in 2003, and this time, a design by French star architect Dominique Perrault was the winner. Mr. Perrault's plans called for a theater clad in a giant golden sheath. Mr. Gergiev describes this second choice as a sign of the times. "In 2003, we celebrated 300 years of St. Petersburg," he says. "We had a great celebration, we had a great city, the economy was doing well—why not a beautiful building? It was extravagant, really extravagant."

But even as the foundations were being laid, Mr. Gergiev says, questions arose. "What I didn't understand 10 years ago was that half of my budget would go to maintenance, protecting it against snow and ice and wind," he says. "It was good-looking on paper. But it was destined to stay in the archives." Mr. Perrault declined to comment.

Meanwhile, in 2007, on one of his whirlwind tours, the conductor visited the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, built in 2006 by Diamond Schmitt Architects. Though the Canadian firm's performing-arts spaces in Toronto and Montreal had been labeled unspectacular by local critics, Mr. Gergiev praised their cost-effectiveness and technical proficiency. "My experience in Toronto was very important—seeing an opera house that is built in the first place for music," he says.

With costs skyrocketing on the Mariinsky Building, a third competition was held in 2009 and Diamond Schmitt Architects won. Because of the difficulty of building in St. Petersburg's swampy soil (so inhospitable that tens of thousands of serfs died constructing the city under Peter the Great), they had to use the foundation designed by the French firm, which had already been constructed. But their design—a sober, beige-colored limestone box with glass facade—marked a far different approach.

"The cohesion of St. Petersburg is wonderful," says firm founder Jack Diamond, as he stands at the construction site, gesturing at the even plane of rooftops stretching out before him, punctuated by golden spires and domes. "You have to have respect for this extraordinarily beautiful city. It was important to me to maintain the consistency.

"If you build something novel here," the architect adds, "it would be sensational for a moment, then forever incongruous." Which is not to say that they wanted to build a 19th-century opera house. "We wanted to create something authentic, not some replica," he says.

For the Canadians, this translated into a modern building in which form follows function in everything from the décor in the main performance hall to the open-air rooftop terrace to the coat check in the basement and the handicap ramps in the lobby. "To me, technology should be decorative," says Mr. Diamond. "Everything should be acoustically driven."

Like each of the old plans, the new design has its detractors. "All the architects said the same thing," says Vladilen Krasilnikov, one of the architects behind the Moscow International House of Music. "The building is not a success." Among other things, he criticizes what he sees as a lack of dialogue between the new and old facades.

Raymond Stults, classical music critic for the Moscow Times, questions whether the new building was necessary. "Once they've renovated the old theater, with the new concert hall, they'll have something like 5,000 seats a night," he says. "How will they fill them all?"

Mr. Gergiev, however, remains optimistic. "It is my duty today to make sure the company I lead grows. At the same time, we have to save the historical achievements," he says. "I personally hope for a really nice opening."

A Long Journey Home
By Sally McGrane - Wall Street Journal