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August 16, 2012
Russian opera house gets Diamond design
In the architecture world, designing an opera house ranks as a plum assignment.
Yet, building a new home for the prestigious Mariinsky Theatre in the city of St. Petersburg has posed its share of challenges for Toronto-based Diamond Schmitt Architects .
The facility is the first of its kind to be constructed in Russia since the reign of the Czars.
“The project (itself) is quite wonderful,” says principal Jack Diamond, whose previous design credits include the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. “But the construction process has at times been very challenging.
“If you want to get anything done, you have to adapt to the circumstances. You have to come to grips with the fact that this is a different culture and that there is a different method of operating. You can’t throw your hands up and say, ‘this is not how we do things in Canada.’ ”
The new theatre accommodates a 2,000-seat opera and ballet house with six stages, six rehearsal rooms and other support facilities.
The project is being undertaken by a team that includes Canadian consulting engineers Halcrow Yolles, a CH2M Hill company and Crossey Engineering as well as St. Petersburg-based architects and engineers.
In mid-2009, Diamond Schmitt won an international competition to design the New Mariinsky Theatre. At that juncture, foundation work was already well underway, under a previously approved scheme for the site.
That presented an immediate challenge for Diamond and his team, who had to jump through hoops to get new plans approved.
The firm also had to figure out how to use the foundations of the previous scheme to support the new scheme.
“We hadn’t quite anticipated when we won the competition the difficulties that would be involved in getting the plans changed,” Diamond said.
Ultimately, Diamond Schmitt gained control of the exterior of the seven-storey structure, the auditorium and the front-of-house areas.
Since undertaking the project, the firm has dealt with three different CEOs in the all-powerful state directorate responsible for the project.
“If I don’t like something, if I say something is not up to scratch, I have to convince the CEO that we have to make a change,” Diamond said.
“He will take your comments into account and may or may not act on them.”
He said the current CEO “is a very capable guy who understands construction, is tough on contractors and maintains budget with an iron fist.”
The current overall budget is estimated at 22 billion rubles, roughly $685 million in Canadian dollars.
Government bureaucracy aside, the project has also posed some challenges from a construction perspective, among them, unstable subgrade conditions.
The building is being constructed on marshland, which necessitated driving 100-foot piles into the ground beneath four levels of basement.
“It’s a prodigious, technical feat to establish a stable building in those conditions,” Diamond said.
Originally scheduled for completion in 2011, the project now is expected to be substantially completed “by the end of this year or early spring at the latest,” Diamond said.
Last fall, the general contractor overseeing the above-ground work was replaced by the directorate.
Diamond said building the new theatre has been “a vastly different experience” than the Four Seasons Centre.
“There is a clear line of authority that works very well in Canada,” he said.
“The chain of command and the rules of engagement are not so clear in Russia.”
But at the end of the day, the project is “an extraordinarily interesting and important” undertaking, Diamond said, given the Mariinsky’s standing as an eminent cultural institution.
He applauded the ambition of Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsy’s artistic director, to transform the area, which includes a recently constructed concert hall, into a cultural precinct “that rivals any other in the world.”
While Gergiev is not the architecture firm’s direct client, Diamond said “he is clearly a major player.
“Working with him has been quite extraordinary. He wants the best and pushes you to do the best.”
The New Mariinsky Theatre is scheduled to open officially next May, during the White Nights Festival, an annual international arts festival held during the season of the midnight sun.
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