Today, Thursday, May 2, 2013, one of the most prestigious opera and ballet houses in the world opens a huge new expansion just next door. It was far beyond next door however where maestro Valergy Gergiev went looking for architects for a new Mariinsky Theatre, “Mariinsky II”, for historic St. Petersburg, Russia. After Gergiev experienced the accoustics at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts he insisted that its designers, Diamond Schmitt Architects, enter the competition to win the project.
Diamond Schmitt did win, and now the new Mariinsky is one of the most significant buildings beyond our borders by a Canadian architect. The original Mariinsky Theatre is a pale jade-coloured neo-classical gem from 1860 that has housed the highly acclaimed Mariinsky Ballet, Opera and Theatre. New isn’t meant to replace old here, however; it’s meant to enhance, and augment the iconic experience that is stepping out in St. Petersburg.
In recent years Diamond Schmitt Architects have become one of the top design firms in the world for cultural and arts centres. In addition to the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto, other notable centres they have designed include the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Hall, the Harman Center for the Arts in Washington D.C., and Maison Symphonique in Montreal. The design team for Mariinsky II includes Jack Diamond, Gary McCluskie, and Michael Treacy, all Principals with the firm; as well as Architects Mike Lukasik and Marina Moukhortova.
At nearly 852,000 square feet, Mariinsky II is three times the size of Toronto's Four Seasons Centre, and one of the largest opera houses in the world. Back of house facilities comprise 567,000 square feet. They include full stage-size rehearsal rooms and the entire production facility for both the new and original Mariinsky Theatres, as well as a nearby concert hall and the Mariinsky Music Academy. On the roof of the new building is an outdoor amphitheatre for performances during St. Petersburg's White Nights festival, when the sun barely sets on the city.
On its exterior, the height and scale of the building contribute to the consistency of St. Petersburg architecture. The light colour of its Jura limestone façade echoes the pastel palette of the 19th century buildings throughout the city, but its cleaner lines and absence of embellishment make the building very much of our time. Regular, historic placement of fenestration is replaced here with an irregular syncopation of windows, allowing visual play between the linear restraint of the exterior and the organic flow of the interior.
“These are young people,” Diamond says of much of the demographic that attends the ballet in St. Petersburg. “People in their 20s. They’re vibrant; they’re people on dates.” You get a sense of them entering the building through the main glass door before descending one level to shed heavy Russian coats and hats. Here, audience members have a few minutes to compose themselves, pat their hair down, before making their own entrance to the reception area one level up.
Throughout the lobbies, multiple stairs cases are given to variety, with ramps, walkways and foot bridges of different shapes and orientations providing audience members ample opportunity to meander through, to see and be seen. This is the other great performance of the evening – the audience themselves.
The traditionally horseshoe-shaped auditorium has 2000 seats, and every single one of them with perfect sight lines to the stage. Its colour palette is based in warm, gold and brown tones for its wood and plaster elements, while the seats themselves relieve the eye with a cooler, slightly greyed blue fabric. Tiny, sparkling lights on the fronts of the balconies throughout the room are recall light from small candelabras that once would have filled a Russian classical theatre.
Facing the stage at the centre of its three balconies is the two-story VIP box, once called the Czar’s box. On opening night, Vladmir Putin will be seated here in attendance, and will applaud with the rest of the audience when Diamond and his colleagues are presented as the designers of this new and beautiful place.
As the audience leaves, young couples, with ears ringing from applause, will walk back across stairs, ramps and foot bridges, lit in a glow the colour of honey, to retrieve coats and hats, and step back out into a Russian night, another performance having come to a close.