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"Futurist" Mariinsky annex jangles nerves of Saint Petersburg artists
June 26, 2003

A metal sheath, blocks of ice, a gigantic piano -- Russian and international stars of architecture have reached deep into their imaginative resources to find an original design for the annex to Saint Petersburg's prestigious Mariinsky theatre.

Whichever of the 11 competing projects wins the jury's favour, the classical lines of the city known as the "Venice of the North" will be shattered for all time, much to the displeasure of large numbers of local artists and residents.

A panel of judges from several countries, headed by Mariinsky director Valery Gergiev, will deliver on Saturday its verdict as to whose design will be chosen for the new building, an extension to the original theatre built in 1860.

The creator of France's new Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, Dominique Perrault, has come up with a form that resembles something between a cocoon and a crystal; Switzerland's Mario Botta is proposing a construction with two structures piled on top of each other, one made of stone and the other of a transparent material.

US architect Eric Owen Moss is the most radical in his vision, seeing the annex in blocks of ice, while Austria's Hans Hollein's vision is of a huge piano and Japan's Arata Isozaki settles for a simple design of geometric forms.

"All the foreign architects have a reputation for radical designs that shatter the urban landscape and create striking spaces," architecture critic Grigory Revzin observed in the weekly magazine Vlast.

The Russian candidates have followed their lead with daring ideas that break totally with the clean lines of the former imperial capital, he noted.

Created exactly 300 years ago by Peter the Great, Saint Petersburg is one of the few cities in the world to have maintained their architectural unity.

Even before the result of the competition is known, several local artists and inhabitants have been gnashing their teeth at the pending clash of styles.

Filmmaker Alexander Sokurov, whose recent "Russian Ark" was a tribute to the city and who is a consultant on the project, said he did not believe that Saint Petersburg and the "explosions of energy" embodied in the competing designs were well matched.

"I don't see why we have to depart from the classical style," he said.

Even the modernist painter Mikhail Shemyakin, while finding the designs "interesting, professional and even beautiful," thought it might be better to build the annex away from the city centre.

"The architects want to marry water and fire and tag a 'gas balloon station' alongside the theatre," Ilya Skakunov, a 22-year-old fine arts student, said.

For Svetlana Ozerova, a 63-year-old teacher of English, erecting futurist buildings in the centre of the city was "sacrilege."

"Saint Petersburgers accustomed to looking out of their windows onto the works of Rossi and Rastrelli are bound to look askance on projects like these," she said.

But Yelena Morozova, a 40-year-old architect, scoffed at conservative tastes, saying it would be "stupid to live in the 21st century against a 19th century background" and praising the "futurist" Eric Owen Moss design.

The Mariinsky, formerly Kirov, theatre has surged ahead of its traditional rival, the Moscow Bolshoi, in recent years thanks to Gergiev's dynamic management.

The conductor ordered the building of an annex to increase the theatre's options faced with as many as 15 premieres a year.

He made it clear that he considered the new building's technical capacities more important than its aesthetic dimensions.

City residents will have four years to accustom themselves to the change in the landscape. The new building with its 2,000-seater auditorium is unlikely to be completed before 2007.

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