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To the Ice Sculptors

Eric Owen Moss
In August of 2001 a tender was held for the reconstruction of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. American developers Frederick and Lori Samitaur-Smith won and invited architect Eric Owen Moss, their frequent collaborator, to present a project for the structure. Their collaboration was able to carry on a significant plan for turning Culver City, a sort of dried-up wasteland of Los Angeles, into a sort of wonderland for architectural experimentation; and their joint effort thus keeps on going, and this time outside the California borders. The California office of Eric Owen Moss prepared 2 projects for St. Petersburg, combined by a single design strategy.

One project deals with the redesign and expansion of the Mariinsky Theater which, barely altered since its completion in 1860, has long outgrown its 19th-century envelope. The other one would dramatically transform the New Holland storehouses into a large mixed-use structure comprising an exhibition center, hotel rooms and restaurants. Moss is playing his game with the historical city of St. Petersburg, defying its reaction in front of his temerarious aesthetical choices. He knows very well that the buildings could shake the city, and he is actually aiming at this sort of final reaction; he wants to contribute, by means of such a strong gesture, to opening up the historical city of Peter the Great to avant-garde architecture and to create a catalyst inside the urban fabric. The energetic architectural language, full of dissonances and courageous geometries, is typical of Eric Owen Moss's work: an exploration of complexity and an unpredictable experimentation with forms and materials characterizes all of his projects. What was needed was in fact an iconic and magnetic architecture, one that would be capable, with its strong spatial presence, to fully express the civic cultural ambitions.

The public, though astounded, initially welcomed the two proposals (one for the new Mariinsky Theater and the other for the New Holland) which were in fact presented to an international audience inside the Russian Pavilion at last year's Venice Biennale of Architecture. But over time the new Mariinsky Theater -with its undulating glass and blue granite, the unusual combination of existing architecture and new elements, the distortion of the conventional order of spaces- aroused opposition from the public and local authorities. The charismatic "maestro" Valery Gergiev himself, director of the ballet and the Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg, began to reconsider his position. Gergiev was from the very beginning a strong supporter of the project and even told the news media that "We've got to be radical to attract attention to ourselves;" his position is today a little less firm and his last declarations see him "support the idea but not the project."

Given the violent reactions stirred by Moss's design and the opposition of local architectural authorities, the Cremlin itself had to intervene in order to ease all polemics by holding a new international competition for a project for the theater: 6 architects were invited to participate, among them Mario Botta, Arata Isozaki and Eric Owen Moss himself, along with some Russian architects (at the beginning the names were instead those of Dominique Perrault, Erick van Egeraat and Hans Hollein).

ARCH'IT is here presenting the two project developed by Eric Owen Moss Architects for the New Mariinski Theater and the New Holland in St. Petersburg, exhibited in the Russian Pavilion at last year's Venice Biennale of architecture. The following text, written by Eric Owen Moss, collects his impressions on the historical city and summarizes his intentions for the project.

Paola Giaconia


...(to) that which is about to come into being, of the open sea whether or not there is land that lies beyond...
Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers

[in italiano] For an American architect it's an astonishing walk along the south bank of the frozen Nieva River in January, 2002... the Winters Palace, the Admiralty, Peter the Great's statue, St. Isaac's Cathedral, New Holland... then south, following the Krukov Canal to the Mariinsky Theatre and St. Nicholas Cathedral. St. Petersburg. Russia's historic "window on the west." But is it still? What's next for the city that began its life as a transformative act of will in a Russian swamp in 1703?

I am an advocate of new architecture. What does that signify for architecture and planning in St. Petersburg? Simply this: history records no permanent solutions. Ideas rise, gain power, dissipate, and are replaced. What remains is the historic record. And that record in St. Petersburg is powerful and compelling. But historic paradigms are provisional. They move. If not in St. Petersburg than elsewhere...but always somewhere and always moving. So why not in St. Petersburg today, propelled by the initial courage of those who founded the city, and the practitioners from east and west who sustained the momentum and implemented the vision?

It's a stunning view from the north bank of the Nieva River. The ice melts and cracks slightly. Perhaps a new conception is about to appear through "the (icy) window on the west."


History would be an excellent thing if only it were true.
Leo Tolstoy

St. Petersburg is not an assemblage of discrete buildings. Rather it is a chronology of monumental spaces that sweep us along from plaza and canal to building and monument. The center city extends from the Winters Palace on the east to New Holland on the west, then south past the Rimsky- Korsakov Conservatory and the Mariinsky Theatre to St. Nicholas Cathedral.

The center is historically vital because of what it portends. Buildings here originated in different eras and were built in various styles. But the consistent lessons are scale and power. There is no consigning the asymmetry of those public spaces to a sedate conclusion. To architecturally intervene in the area is to exploit its spatial message. The tradition of long diagonal views and expansive public space is open ended. There is room for more. We are encouraged to continue.


...but to give everything its due, two and two make five is also a very fine thing.
Fdor Dostoevskij, Notes from Underground

The architect has analyzed both the New Holland and the New Mariinsky sites not so much as locations for new building "events" in the historic center of St. Petersburg (though they surely suggest that aspect), but rather to understand the two sites as extensions of the existing organization of the historic district.

The New Holland triangle forms the western perimeter of the sequence of public buildings and spaces that runs west along the Nieva River starting at the Winters Palace. The beautiful, old brick warehouses, long used for shipbuilding, define this west edge in a construction language already familiar in the city center. The northeast corner of New Holland should open to pedestrians moving west from Palace Square, or from the subway exit just east of New Holland. These pedestrians will proceed across bridges into New Holland, through a large exhibit hall on the corner and into the open air performance space beyond.

New Holland.

The proposal for New Holland is to sequester the new cultural facilities behind the newly rehabilitated brick structures. The plaza internal to the site has space for 30,000 concert goers; a new outdoor stage and temporary seating for 5,000; and a glass enclosed public lobby, lifted above the stage, that contains a 700-seat concert hall. These facilities come into view from inside the brick structures. The brick buildings on the edges of the canals are to be rehabilitated for offices, retail, restaurant, and classrooms and work spaces for the arts. The structures have a double face -open to the canals and city beyond, and to the public plaza where dance, music and impromptu performances will be held.

On the north edge of the New Holland triangle is a new mixed use structure designed to combine hotel rooms, restaurants and an exhibition center that will display inventive technical products from around the world. This exhibit space may be used for a single show, or sub-divided for multiple exhibits and conferences. At the street level are lobbies for both hotel and exhibit center along with the entrance to a new art museum installed in an old boat testing pool below the hotel. The museum will include a collection of experimental contemporary art works. In contrast to the brick of the existing structures, the hotel center is primarily glass with an undulating roof line that offers spectacular views to the city and to the Gulf of Finland.

The center of the New Holland plaza holds a large pool, once used by ship constructors to re-float their boats. That pool will remain in its original shape, connected to the canals that surround the site. Against the north edge of the pool an outdoor stage will be constructed with production and support facilities housed below. Above the water are 5,000 temporary theatre seats supported on removable steel structures. And above the stage and seats is the floating glass enclosure -a great spatial promenade in the air, with concourses that lead to the new 700-seat concert hall within. The original structures are brick; the new hotel is glass; and the concert hall combines the two materials.

The east and south elevations of the new hotel and the raised glass promenade and hall are visible from Palace Square to the east and from the Mariinsky to the south, and will punctuate the western skyline of the city. New Holland will not only become an important new cultural destination, but will function as an organizational pivot point, visually uniting eastern and southern portions of the city center through the New Holland apex. The visual exchange between the Mariinsky, the Hermitage, and New Holland establishes three vertices on an east-west/south-north axis, connecting east to south.

New Mariinski Theater.

The New Mariinsky Theatre south of New Holland, seats 2,000 people. A glass bridge is proposed to span the Krukov Canal and join the back stage of the existing theatre with the rear stage production area of the New Mariinsky. The two theatres will share access to sixteen 16m x 16m x 14m stage - house modules. These production units, positioned behind the proscenium tower, will accommodate the most complex assemblies and performance schedules including the staging of four operas simultaneously. Rehearsal halls, design and costume facilities, and administrative offices are also housed in the new structure.

The entry lobby to the new Mariinsky Theatre faces north, with an uninterrupted view to New Holland. A large and gracious entry plaza in the tradition of Palace Square connects the front of the new Mariinsky, the existing Mariinsky, and, by closing the street in front of the Rimsky Korsekov Conservatory, a pedestrian promenade joins all three venues, and opens an important vista south to St. Nicholas Cathedral.

From the public front outside the theatre, the old and New Mariinskys and New Holland's concert hall will be simultaneously in view. Like the New Holland concert hall, the Mariinsky Theatre is enclosed in glass. Three conceptually elastic glass modules or "pillows" are precisely adjusted to form seating, structure, circulation, lobbies, acoustic shell, concourses, and lecture space. Seating in the auditorium is arranged asymmetrically, shaped spatially by extending and adjusting the curved modules which form the building's glass face into the auditorium where the curving material becomes stainless steel.

The Mariinsky ensemble of glass and steel will become one of the world's most technically sophisticated performance venues. With a new New Holland and the New Mariinsky, St. Petersburg, a unique world city with an unmatched cultural pedigree, will launch a new tradition of opera, ballet, music, and architecture far into the next century.

For an American architect, a stroll across the Dvortsovy Bridge over the Nieva River in June, 2005 reveals a surprising reflection in the ice- free water. What an astonishing new skyline shimmering through the "window on the west"...

Eric Owen Moss


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