Fyodor Dostoevsky Theater

Special thanks to Andrei Rozen, who kindly agreed that we use parts of his wonderful article "The Novgorod Spaceship", dedicated to the Dostoevsky Theater.

Don't miss reading the full text, the story is very interesting and goes far beyond the building itself. Find a link to his website featuring the complete article in the digital references.

        In the late 1960’s, in order to prevent the mass migration of younger people to the larger cities, Soviet authorities began to preserve and develop local culture. A government directive stated that any city with a population over 200,000 should have its own drama theater. Novgorod was one of them.

         In 1973 Vladimir Somov was working at the Giproteater, an organization responsible for the implementation of the nation-wide theatre construction plan. In the beginning of that year, Gipro’s head architect, Vladimir Duro was unexpectedly asked by the Ministry of Culture to present them with much anticipated ideas for a future Novgorod theater. He had none yet to show. That same day, Duro called Somov to his office and ordered him to come up with a design for the theatre. Somov seized the moment and remarkably, four days later, put on Duro's desk several variations. “It was my great luck that Duro had picked me for the job. I felt privileged and incredibly inspired to create a theatre for a city considered to be the cradle of Russian history,” Somov told me. Evidently, Somov’s sketches were well liked by the Ministry of Culture and he was assigned to lead the architectural and technical design of the project. He had also became the chief engineer and led the construction of the theater from start to finish.

         Initially, the committee did not like Somov’s first version of the design, but not because they thought it was too radical. In fact, the first draft was the tamest of the three. Ironically it was the second version, closest to the highly eccentric building we see today, that was finally approved by the Ministry in 1975. Perhaps Soviet bureaucrats believed that a contemporary looking theater would contribute to the modernization of Novgorod. 

         Because Somov was aware of the rigor and unpredictability of state censorship he chose to present his designs to the Ministry piece by piece, trying to avoid any unnecessary confrontations. Moreover, he purposely concealed many details from government officials, preventing them from seeing the whole picture, and instead left the final sketches and exact calculations for the builders and engineers. When dealing with the Ministry his motto was, “show less and build what you really want later.” Indeed, Somov was very anti-Soviet in those days. Consciously, or subconsciously, he wanted to push through a concept which was going to shake up the system. The worst thing that could have happened to Somov would have been a hard slap on the wrist by the government apparatchiks. But in the end, because of the project’s near success he was praised for his theater more often than not.

         What helped Somov to get the go ahead for the theater construction was the laziness of the Soviet system. Once the Ministry of Culture had approved the project and the Ministry of Finance had okayed the budget, bureaucrats immediately wanted to wash their hands and dump the responsibility onto organizations, like Giproteatr. As a result, Somov was assigned as chief engineer, which gave him near total control over construction. The completion of the building was a huge responsibility and an endless headache, but in the end, because of his position, he had managed to implement almost every single detail of his design. 

Design

         Somov designed the building to serve primarily as a space for theatre performances. To him the functionality of the building was priority number one. In fact he designed Novgorod Theater from the stage out. For years he had studied “scenography”, experimenting with various stage designs and their utility. As a result he tailored for Novgorod theatre a unique, three-part stage, which could easily be transformed in sixteen different ways to suite the needs of any production. Next he positioned all of the mechanisms responsible for its numerous functions. Then he created the theater hall with a capacity of 850 people and planned all of the rooms dedicated to the production of the performances: offices, carpentry shop, scenic studio, welding and metal shop, prop rooms, wardrobe studio, etc... Next he created the foyer, recreational areas, toilets, box office and many other areas that served the needs of the audience. And only then Somov finalize the three-dimensional contours of the theater. The whole project was an exercise in function over form. The odd-looking, futuristic towers were specifically created to provide water for the independent air conditioning and sprinkler system. The whole exterior design itself, the plasticity and modernity of its form, was dictated by its function. Somov explained it like this: “when the overhead lights dim and the play begins, it still takes the viewer awhile to tune in and get into the mood in order to connect with the actors and their emotions. The sooner this happens the better for the play.” Therefore, Somov wanted to create an appearance that could trigger the audience’s imagination before they even entered the theatre.

         Somov succeeded. The theatre turned out to be an alchemical embodiment of various architectural forms that invited the visitor into a different world. Its three walls were made of gigantic concrete arches with windows. Conventionaly they would typically support the roof of the building. Somov's arches, while carrying only skylights made of glass, created the illusion that they were suspended in mid-air. The weightlessness of the walls made the building look like a part of some larger, two-dimensional theater set. The enormous panoramic windows were designed to delight the theatergoer with views of the Volkhov River. A special lighting was designed to illuminate the theater and its square, making it visible from a great distance.

         The ceiling was one of the most radical aspects of the theater’s interior. This truly unique construction was made from solid concrete blocks and later connected into a fantastic tapestry. As incredible as it may seem, the ceiling was lifted as one piece onto the perimeter of the walls and became a part of the supporting structure. Its design presented to the government committee was as vague as possible. Somov knew very well that if the Ministry of Culture had gotten a clear idea of his true intentions they’d never have approved the design. The details of the ceiling’s construction had been discussed only with the builders. Instead of casting the concrete blocks at a factory and bringing them to the work site, they were made and tested directly on the premises. The actual production of the blocks had begun only after the walls were erected. Somov knew that once they were built, the design of the ceiling could not be changed. Somov’s idea was daring, but visionary. He didn’t know how his ceiling was going to influence the acoustics of the theater hall. Clearly his design contradicted many known and commonly used principles of sound distribution. But Somov gambled and hit the jackpot. After the theater was built, scientific testing concluded that Somov’s ceiling provided the theater with a superior sound. 

Integration

         It is hard to say if state authorities were at all concerned with integrating the building’s revolutionary design into Novgorod’s traditional landscape. They set rather contradictory guidelines for the architects:

“The architecture of the future theater has to fit organically into the historical context of the city, which will be celebrating 1125 years of its existence. The ancient traditions of classical Russian architecture, as well as a clear understanding of the demands and tastes of modern design has to be taken into account.”

         Unfortunately Somov himself had no input whatsoever in choosing a site for the construction. In fact, he had never even been to Novgorod, had never seen Novgorod’s Kremlin, or walked on the banks of the Volkhov River where the theater was slated to be built. When V. Duro asked him to envision the new theater, he put in front of him a map of the city indicating where the building should stand - an organization called the State Institute of City Development had already made that full determination. That’s how things were done in those dark ages.

         [Andrei Rozen] asked Somov if his team had any specific plans to develop the surrounding neighborhood to harmonize with his modernistic theatre design. “No, it was the responsibility of the city of Novgorod to devise such a plan," Somov replied, "as far as integration the only thing that I wanted to do was to create a structure which would balance out the mass of the Novgorod Kremlin located near by.”
         It was becoming clear that not only the Ministry of Culture, but Somov himself had invested little thought and effort into the theatre’s integration. I started getting a hunch that the real reason behind its inability to adopt into the city environs was hidden a lot deeper than the Ministry’s confusing directions and the politics surrounding the project. Perhaps it had to do directly with Somov’s personal ambitions and his creative influences.

Guiding Forces 

         To understand Somov's major inspiration for his theatre it is important to remember, that he is also an avant-garde painter. Esher’s psychedelic puzzles, Le Corbusier’s plasticity of concrete, deconstructionist methods of Cubism were some of his early influences. Should it surprise us that Novgorod Theater looks the way it does? Not if it was envisioned, designed, and built by a post-modernist like Somov. Did he consider the surrounding environment when designing the theater? He says, in his own way he did. Was his design influenced and inspired by Russian architectural tradition? He says it was, in the most direct way. Was he creating a structure that was looking ahead towards the architectural future of Novgorod? Maybe he was. But is that really important? In the end he did exactly what he wanted to do and built a something which became a direct expression of his singular vision.

         Somov claimes that the very soul of Russian traditional architecture was infused into the design of Novgorod Theater. And true, if we look closely at the building, at its arches, windows and towers - these elements could have been inspired by early Russian churches. Made of clay and covered with white paint, they were built long before European and other influences changed the face of Russian Episcopal architecture. Separated from their immediate environment by open spaces, these primitive temples appear to be an ultimate manifestation of purity and spirit. Since the moment of their creation they have sailed high above the banality of life. Somov’s theatre perfectly achieved, and perhaps even magnified this effect; by designing a large open square around the theater he insured that it was set apart and elevated from its surroundings. Yet in doing so, he alienated the theatre from the city and the people of Novgorod who never granted it the same unconditional acceptance they do to their ancient temples. Besides, even if Somov did look deep into the very soul of Russian tradition, he brilliantly deconstructed it to such a degree that his building clearly left the realm of common taste and understanding. This created an air of elitism, preventing even further a possibility of theatre’s integration into the city. Unloved and uncared for, it stands now on the banks of the Volkhov River like a pariah in its own land. Today, nearly 20 years after the theater was built, it is clear that Novgorod will either undergo a major change or simply let the theatre turn to dust.

         But what kind of change would that imply? I tried to imagine what Novgorod would look like if it was going to adapt to Somov’s theatre. The picture my mind painted began to look like a cheesy, futuristic city from Star Trek. No, it clearly was not a matter of physical change. Perhaps the only way for the theatre to survive was to be accepted for what it was, regardless of local tradition and popular aesthetics. What really needed to change in Novgorod was the mentality of its inhabitants. This could easily take another century. Meanwhile the city might very well choose to bulldoze the Spaceship into the ground, rather than take good care of it and grant it new life.

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