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St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. What is especially remarkable is the magnitude and consistency of the scale of its historic classical architecture. Streetscapes are unbroken. The only contrast is the many splendid domed churches and cathedrals that are spread across the city. It is only these important buildings, distinguished by their appropriately exceptional architecture, that are given pride of place. The otherwise consistent architecture of the city frames those often-exuberant structures, shaping the spaces in which they sit, like jewels set in the urban fabric of the city.

This is the context in which any new structure must be built. The question then, is how to design in a manner true to its time, yet in harmony with its historic context?

In the case of the new Mariinsky Theatre, a building of public significance, choosing to dramatically contrast its architecture to that of historic St. Petersburg would be the correct approach if, like the cathedrals such as St. Isaac or that of the Spilled Blood, the new building could have been a free standing or “pavilion“, structure set in its own grounds, framed by the chain of continuously connected buildings that line the streets and canals of the city.

However, this was not an option, as the building fills an entire city block, built out to the street line. Hence, the building has been designed to contribute to the consistency of St. Petersburg’s streetscape.

Historically, the classical structures that make up the bulk of the architecture of St. Petersburg consist of three main components: a masonry base of between three and six stories; vertically proportioned and regularly spaced fenestration, relieved by colonnaded entrance porticos; and metal roofs with dormer windows, chimneys and other roof paraphernalia.

The design of the exterior of the Mariinsky is a contemporary expression of exactly those elements: a masonry base of an equivalent of five or six stories; vertically proportioned fenestration (however, syncopated rather than rhythmically regular); great structural glass bay windows instead of a classical portico, to relieve the façade of monotony and to mark the entrance. The bay windows afford transparency, a democratic gesture to provide views of the interior for everyone as well as frame views of the city and the original Mariinsky for those inside the building.

Similarly, the auditorium is based on the tried and true opera house form, the horseshoe shape. However, unlike the historic precedent, the three-dimensional geometry of the balconies has been shaped to provide every seat in the house with good sight lines. Of course the horseshoe shape gives the audience a sense of itself and is one in which the performers are embraced by the audience and, in turn, the performers enjoy a close relationship with their audience.

For acoustic design, classical decorative features – the various scales of columns, balcony front curvature and the bas-relief of putti, garlands and swagged grapes – effected the refraction of low, medium and high frequency sounds in historic structures. The contemporary equivalent has been achieved in a more organic manner via the convex curves of the rear wall of solid plaster bands of varied width and the solid wood balcony fronts sculpted and “shingled” across the length of the balcony. This also avoids the relentless balcony fronts of many modern theatres. The tiny candelabra of the classic balcony front gave sparkle to the room: crystal lozenges embedded in the grooved balcony fronts provide the equivalent.

Where the contemporary opera house diverges markedly from the classical antecedents is in the public areas. Once hierarchical in their social divisions, these are now made equivalent whatever level the patron uses; where entrances were previously segregated by class distinction, they are now united in one location. Not only is there equivalence given to each level, but the contemporary device of interpenetrating volumes afford views of public spaces from all levels.

In a sense the audience are the performers during intermission: the stairs, transparency and spatial interpenetration allow the audience to be the “players” strutting their part upon a stage, to enjoy attending a performance with others.

The dynamism of the spaces and their dramatic glass staircases mediate between the city beyond and the auditorium within. These elements enhance the sense of occasion and build anticipation of the performance to follow.

Historically, internal design cohesion was achieved through the consistent use of decorative classical elements that covered walls, ceilings and balcony fronts. This is achieved in a contemporary hall through a palette of few materials - wood and plaster - and a monochromatically warm colour scheme. These elements are in turn relieved by the cool colour of the seat fabric. Sparkle is achieved through a multiplicity of small lighting elements.

The new Mariinsky back-of-house is also profoundly different to that of the historic opera house – technically it is a marvel of automation, of advanced production facilities and performer, technician and management accommodation. The new house in fact will be the production facility of both the old and new houses.

In summary, the new Mariinsky is a structure of authentic contemporary architecture, one respectful of its historic context, based upon the successful configuration of past houses, but of 21st-century sensibility and one in which the social aspects of attending opera or ballet performances have been enhanced for every member of the audience.
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