The Drama Theatre in Novgorod has a long history dating back to the first half of the XIX century. In 1914, the theatre was given a place in the Kremlin, next to St. Sophia Cathedral (now it houses the Regional Philharmonic). The hall at that time could seat 700 people.

In 1967, the population of Novgorod exceeded 100 thousand people. In line with the Soviet standards of that era, such cities were entitled to a new theater building with modern equipment. The general plan for the development of Novgorod, approved in 1968, parcelled out a place for a large public building on the embankment of the Volkhov River, just downstream from the Kremlin. In 1970, they decided to build a theatre at this site. The newly built structure was to become part of the city ensemble along with the ancient building, so its location was adapted to the perspective views.

Anna Bronovitskaya

Russian architectural historian, expert in Soviet modernist architecture, member of the Russian branch of the International Working Group on documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and urban development of the contemporary movement DOCOMOMO

In the second half of 1960 - early 1970s theatre buildings were built en masse all over the Soviet Union: they planned to build 70 new theatres. Two Moscow specialized agencies were in charge of the theatre planning: the Central Research and Design Institute of Residential and Public Buildings of entertaining facilities and Giproteatr. The practice of development of theatre architecture in line with new trends in theatre art became the subject of discussion, which took place in 1966 in the Central House of Architects in Moscow.

The discussion involved theatre directors and theatre technicians along with architects. They mentioned that a theatre building should not be a standardised construction site; it should become an architectural focal point, something that the city could be proud of; the drama theatre should not be too big, up to 1000 seats, otherwise the contact with the audience would have been lost.

They dispusted over the advantages and disadvantages of different types of stage, and many called the traditional fly stage system old-fashioned. The need to bring cutting end technology to the theatre was also on the agenda. Speaking of the role of the theatre in urban planning, they said: “In contrast to the monotony of standardised residential housing, architects aspire to use the contrast of expressive building volumes, flexibility in theatre buildings, try to “extend” the structure, create free space, distance, background that support and highlight the theatre. It enhances the brightness of the theatre surroundings, using the most expressive visual elements: assymetric plan, irregular borders, complex lines of water ponds, intricate outlines of ponds, boskets, stairs, terraces, pathways.”

All these words can be attributed to the Drama Theatre in Veliky Novgorod, designed by a Giproteatr employee Vladimir Somov in the early 1970s and completed in 1987. Undoubtedly, this building was conceived as a powerful architectural accent, contrasting with ordinary housing that forms an ensemble with historical architectural sights on the embankment of the Volkhov River.

With its 850 seats, the building has an astounding cubature — mainly, to get an impressive view from the river. It appears to grow outside adding towers, stairs, and ramps that enable cars to drive directly onto the stage. In the past, a specially designed paving area covered the entire area around the theatre, including a small reclined amphitheater. This element which enhances the interaction between the theatre building and the city was repeatedly mentioned at the discussions of the future of theatre architecture. The original structure was complemented by another vertical element, a sculptural “twisted” column that was dismantled in 2008.

“Surrealist,” “cosmic,” “out of this world” – this is how peoples often describe the building. But do Sofia Novgorodskaya or Georgievsky Cathedral of Yurievsky monastery in Novgorod seem less surrelalist? Vladimir Somov aspired to create the modern Novgorod architecture.

The arches of the theatre façade have a vertically elongated line like parts of the fortress walls of Georgievsky cathedral. The complex silhouette of the upper structure establishes a dialogue with three domes across the river standing on the compact quadruple of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Mother of God, which rose above the wide ground floor gallery. Somov himself saw the building as a “theatre temple,” — hence the symmetry and clear orientation on the east-west axis. Apparently, Novgorod references were also clear to the client (municipalities), who rejected the first version of the project as more suitable “for Germany,” but approved the second project that had arches.

The interiors of the theatre are even more terrific than the façade. They feature arches, semi-arches, circles, and circular arcs, in three-dimensional geometry. The semi-terrazzo has the same pattern as the outside paving (lost to date), while the foyer ceiling and the hall have the same three-dimensional elements as the lost column. The walls of the hall are decorated with brown rectangles of various shades that create an optical 3D illusion.

The theatre is everywhere, not just on stage, however, it is, obviously, the centre and the heart of everything. It consists of three sections and embraces pit stalls. Let’s quote the author: “This structure did not only enable a theatre director to implement any idea, it involved the audience in the show as half the audience members were practically seated on stage. I invented more than 16 positions that could help to transform the theatre stage: a standard position which employed only the central part of the stage; a position with rotary circles that allowed to show a theatrical performance in a continuous movement; and a variant with thrust walls that used two side stages.” It was one of the most technologically advanced stages in the USSR.

Somov took advantage of all the loopholes left by the revision of regulations, followed the recommendations of experts in «theatre» of the future, borrowed technologies of construction from his colleagues abroad, and eventually created something absolutely original and unique. Only a few theatres could compete with this structure in originality of designs in the Soviet Union: we can name the Theatre on Taganka in Moscow (Alexander Anisimov, Yuri Gnevdovsky, and other architects, 1972 - 1980) and The National Theatre of Opera and Ballet in Vilnius (Elyana Buchyute, 1974).

The Drama Theatre is the most important building of the architect Somov, and it was conceived as a triumph. But it didn’t happen due to the protracted developments on the site. The company moved to the theatre during perestroika —it has been a fruitful time of creativity, but the economic situation was tough. It was very difficult to maintain large spaces of high foyers in market conditions. The building gradually fell into decay, making it still harder for the locals to fall in love with it. However, appreciators of the late Soviet architecture find the building amazing, and their number is growing rapidly.

The re-evaluation and renovation of structures of the second half of the 20 century is an ongoing global process. worldwide. The architecture of late modernism and early postmodernism, having survived a historic hole, gets more and more supporters. The modernist architecture is now in reference books and require historic preservation – for example, the list of heritage sites in England includes about 600 structures built after World War II. The Doestoevsky Drama Theatre in Veliky Novgorod can become an attractive public space and a major tourist attraction.

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