- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG — Peter the Great built St. Petersburg as a window to the West, to modernity. Now, 300 years later, an argument about architecture raises the question of whether the city prefers the window closed.

This summer, as part of the city’s 300th-anniversary celebration, world-renowned architects are competing to design a new stage for the Mariinsky Theater, Russia’s premier venue for the performing arts. But the contest, and one design by an American architect described as looking like “garbage bags,” are sparking concerns about whether the city is ready for modern architecture.

The debate started more than a year ago — when it looked like Mariinsky artistic director Vladimir Gergiev would finally get his wish for a new theater worthy of housing the world-class operas, ballets and symphonies he’s famous for staging. The current building, built in the 19th century, makes it difficult to change sets, and the acoustics need improvement.

It appeared that Los Angeles architect Eric Owen Moss, who made his reputation with “deconstructivist” buildings in Culver City, Calif., had been picked to build the new theater.

His design, which resembles massive chunks of ice — not unlike this northern city, which spends more than half the year in winter — was believed to have the support of Mr. Gergiev and federal officials. But it was rejected by many in the St. Petersburg architectural community.

At the Fine Arts Academy in St. Petersburg, Vice Rector Simyon Mikhailkovsky said Mr. Moss and his design lacked a connection to the city — built during the 18th and 19th centuries, and described as the “Venice of the North” for its classical architecture and system of canals.

“I wanted to see more of a seriousness and respectfulness in relation to the city,” Mr. Mikhailkovsky said. Instead, across from the light-green-and-white confection of the Mariinsky, Mr. Mikhailkovsky says, Mr. Moss proposed building “three big glass sacks.”

But others say that a big glass sack might be just what the city needs.

“Today we are sitting on our habitual perch of classical architectural heritage, vigilant not to allow anything new to penetrate our domain. Nineteenth-century architecture is our idol and preservation of it, our religion,” said Alexey Leporc, a professor of the history of fine arts at the European University in St. Petersburg.

He argues that St. Petersburg is so desperately trying to preserve its classical architecture that it is smothering the future. A design like the one by Mr. Moss could become a powerful symbol of a new St. Petersburg, moving into the 21st century, Mr. Leporc said.

The debate about modernity will be decided in a very modern way. Unlike Peter the Great, who used his dictatorial will to build a city entirely to his liking, city officials are being more democratic.

They describe the confusion surrounding Mr. Moss’ plan as just a big misunderstanding, saying there was never any agreement with him to build the theater. Instead they are holding a competition, inviting 11 leading architects, including Mr. Moss, to take part.

Oleg Kharchenko is St. Petersburg’s main architect and, according to people in the St. Petersburg architectural community, was one of the staunchest opponents of Mr. Moss’ design. Mr. Kharchenko denies it, saying he has no problems with modern architecture, by Mr. Moss or anyone else.

He does, however, see one flaw in the American’s design, and anyone who has worn white pants in a Russian winter would consider it a valid point.

Mr. Kharchenko said that “someone who grows up without ever seeing any snow, someone who does not know what it is like to have winter for six months, or to live in polluted city atmosphere” would probably not realize that a shiny glass building won’t stay shiny for long during a St. Petersburg winter of slush and grime.

The competition will include an international jury with such cultural luminaries as Joseph Clark, technical director of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

The contest seems designed to deflect any hint of bias against foreigners. City officials emphasize that the best design will win — whether it’s by a Russian or foreigner.

“We haven’t lived in Soviet times for a long time. We don’t have to show that the Soviet person is the best,” Mr. Kharchenko said.

Five of the contestants are from Russian firms, and their nationality hasn’t shielded them from criticism. One Russian design has been described in a local newspaper as a “Chinese mall.”

In fact, hiring a foreigner to do the job might make it easier to find financing. Officials estimate that the theater will cost $100 million to build, with all the funding to come from the federal budget.

But if it turns out that the federal government can’t afford to pay for the entire project, theater officials might need to look for outside funding — something that would be easier with a high-profile foreign architect running the project.

“Attempts to attract private donations are under way, and picking a foreign architect with a name would certainly facilitate the process,” Mr. Leporc said. “No private donor will want to give money for a bleak, Soviet-style project. At least, I wouldn’t.”

The winner will be announced June 28 in St. Petersburg, and the building is expected to be finished by 2009.

Theater and city officials say there hasn’t been a competition like this in more than 70 years, when Soviet ruler Josef Stalin solicited designs for Moscow’s Palace of Soviets.

But city officials might want to refrain from citing such history. In the end, despite the well-publicized contest, the Palace of Soviets was never built.

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