“ It is the time for us to understand what St. Petersburg brings to the world and what the world brings to St. Petersburg…”

    Valery Gergiev, the artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre, began his riveting presentation with these words at the March 8 symposium, “Projecting Petersburg.” The symposium launched a year-long program of cultural and educational events at the University of Michigan to celebrate the tercentennial of St. Petersburg, the former capital of Imperial Russia, and its unique architectural and cultural legacy. The symposium brought into focus a specific project—the refurbishing and major expansion of the Mariinsky Theatre of opera and ballet. This architectural project throws into relief the larger spectrum of intellectual, cultural and economic problems that St. Petersburg, a major European metropolis with its world-renowned historic center, confronts in the twenty-first century.

    The refurbishment and expansion of the Mariinsky Theatre, one of the leading opera and ballet houses in the world today, is a colossal project. This task presents a unique challenge of endowing a venerable cultural icon of Imperial and Soviet Russia with a robust new architectural image. A dynamic and worldly musical prodigy and a passionate advocate of St. Petersburg‘s cultural legacy, Gergiev quickly recognized that the new building projected to stand beside the historic nineteenth-century Mariinsky Theatre should provide technically superior facilities for staging the most innovative opera and ballet productions. In addition, Gergiev also felt it should be an incomparable work of contemporary architecture that would reinvigorate the city‘s reputation for architectural excellence. This helps explain Gergiev‘s pursuit of a bold, innovative design for the new Mariinsky. By matching the past with an uncompromisingly modern structure, the Mariinsky expansion project stands to breathe new life into the long dormant profile of St. Petersburg‘s architectural image. While the public and the city authorities generally agree that the city cannot shy away from allowing new architecture into the city, opinions diverge on how to reconcile the modern refashioning of the Mariinsky with the ongoing popular commitment to sustain the city‘s venerable historical identity.

    In many respects the dramatic events surrounding the Mariinsky expansion project determined the range of the symposium‘s participants and agenda. Two years ago the Los Angeles architect Eric Owen Moss submitted an ultra-modern design for the new Mariinsky building, which was soon commissioned by Los Angeles developers Frederic and Laurie Samitaur-Smith. In the design, the opera house was to be placed behind the nineteenth-century theatre and connected to it by a glazed bridge across the Kriukov Canal, featuring large, irregular glazed forms.

    Unveiled in St. Petersburg in January 2002, Moss‘s project set off a firestorm of criticism in this city of magnificent eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings the outlook of which has seen few changes since World War II. The resulting ferocious debate over the theatre‘s future prompted the Russian government to organize an international competition for the new Mariinsky opera house. The competition was announced on January 14, 2003 by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federations and is backed financially by the Russian Government. It involves five Russian architects and six leading Western architects, including Moss, who have been invited to submit designs. In unprecedented deference to the citizens of St. Petersburg, the competition projects are to be displayed for public viewing at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg prior to the selection of the winning entry. In addition to Gergiev and representatives of the Russian and St. Petersburg architectural communities, the international jury includes Bill Lacy, executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and Wolf D. Prix of the avant-garde Viennese architectural firm Coop Himmelblau, together with several other Western specialists. The final results will be announced on June 28.

    The Michigan symposium‘s contribution lay in its intellectual critique of the very object of the competition. Valery Gergiev‘s vision for both the theatre and for the future of Russian culture created a platform for the discussion. Not only does Gergiev believe that music must thrive in times of economic difficulties and cataclysms in world culture in general, but he is also capable of leading the charge himself. He has adjusted his tight performance schedule for meetings with high-ranking officials in the worlds of music, culture and politics as well as with record-industry magnates and wealthy opera and ballet fans. His participation in this symposium affirmed his commitment to being a “mercenary for culture”—a role deeply rooted in the enduring tradition of Russian and St. Petersburg culture.

    A few points in Gergiev‘s presentation deserve particular attention. He argued that the future development of St. Petersburg lies less in economic miracles—although these cannot be dismissed—than in intensifying the city‘s immense cultural potential. This, he conceded, is the only way St. Petersburg can repay the world for all the masterful tendencies and techniques it absorbed during the three centuries of the city‘s existence. The Maestro has a profound fascination with St. Petersburg‘s dynamic cultural ambience and an unshakable belief in Russia‘s capacity to astound the world culturally. This faith bolsters Gergiev‘s claim that only by mobilizing the world‘s best architects and their Russian counterparts can the competition for the new Mariinsky Theatre exert any long-lasting influence on St. Petersburg‘s future urban and cultural development. He pointed out that by receiving the various design concepts submitted to the architectural competition, the city continues its long-standing experience of adapting dynamic Western architectural and urban designs into its vibrant urban fabric.

    Competing visions of modernity, revolving around issues of innovation and tradition, have determined the visual forms by which the city has variously chosen to represent itself. This has also emerged as a topic of critical discourse. In his talk, Anatole Senkevitch, associate professor of TCAUP, contextualized the challenges of modernity that St. Petersburg is confronting in the new Mariinsky project by critiquing the city‘s historical legacy. He began by grounding St. Petersburg‘s uncompromising pursuit of architectural and urban modernity in the formative reigns of Peter the Great, Catherine II and Alexander I, with urban spaces conceived as ensembles and stage sets for imperial statecraft and culture building. Once that image had been set, he argued, the ensuing turn-of-the-century process of mythologizing St. Petersburg‘s ubiquitous neoclassical legacy as the root of its past and future architectural greatness effectively undermined the city‘s initial candid pursuit of the modern. This instead induced a fear of disturbing the city core‘s established classical uniformity and poise.

    Aaron Betsky, the director of the Netherlands Institute of Architecture, offered a different perspective for discourse—a postmodern propensity for producing places for viewing and understanding culture. By referring to the Bilbao syndrome, Betsky warned the audience that the introduction of the ultra-modern objects of architecture carries multiple effects for urban development. Eric Owen Moss‘s participation in the symposium proved an invaluable asset. The audience could encounter one of the entrants in the current competition, and could also learn a great deal from the immediate engagement with the process of designing for St. Petersburg. In explaining his approach to the New Holland project, which he designed along with the new Mariinsky Theatre, Moss relied on the telling metaphor of a guest encountering an enigmatic northern city and left free to develop his own associative links and insights about it. At the same time, Moss‘s evocation of the amorphous melting and freezing ice forms embodied in his design for the Mariinsky Theatre appeared to be informed by his interpretation of Dostoevsky‘s writings and nuanced reading of the avant-garde‘s revolutionary experiments in early Soviet architecture. He made clear that the cultural pedigree of the place is important to anyone entering St. Petersburg, particularly if one aspires to see his project implemented.

    It was a fitting decision to invite two Russian specialists to serve as respondents to the four main speakers of the Symposium: Valery Nefedov, director of the Architectural Institute at the St. Petersburg State University of Architecture and Construction, and Alexey Leporc, an art critic who teaches at the European University in St. Petersburg. Both respondents sketched out an invigorating picture of recent architectural developments in St. Petersburg in rather complimentary, if slightly opposing, ways. Nefedov‘s account focused on the expansion projects of the city‘s major art collections, the Hermitage and the State Russian Museum, along with examples of the smaller architectural forms. Leporc‘s presentation highlighted some questionable additions to the city‘s contemporary urban fabric. An ardent advocate of Moss‘s design, Leporc warned against the “invisible, inconspicuous" maneuvers in the competition process that could spell the ultimate defeat of the modernist agenda in St. Petersburg.

    The spirited differences in the opinions expressed suggested that St. Petersburg may at last be ready to reclaim its place in contemporary architectural discourse.

    Tatiana V. Senkevitch is a pre-doctoral fellow at the Getty Research Institute and a doctoral candidate in the Department of the History of Art at the U-M. The event was sponsored by CREES, the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, the Office of the Vice President for Research, International Institute, CES and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.