Театральная площадь: A structural evolution

by Rachel Faith & Rachel Janis

When first faced with St. Petersburg’s Theater Square, one is at somewhat of a loss for words, partially from the majesty of the square’s two main buildings, the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory of Music and the Mariinsky Theater, but also from the strange, cramped chaos in which they are located. Each building is surrounded on almost all sides by wide, busy streets, construction, canals, and haphazardly parked cars, punctuated occasionally by a monument or a row of trees. Ultimately, the main impression created by all of this is “They call this a square? Why?” Compared to some of Russia’s other squares, such as the Palace Square in St. Petersburg or the famous Red Square of Moscow, Theater Square looks more like a large intersection than a square. Even the Theater Square in front of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow presents a more open, pedestrian-friendly space which greater resembles the traditional idea of a public square than its counterpart in St. Petersburg. At this point in time, Theater Square no longer functions as a square in the traditional definition, but greater resembles a node as defined by Kevin Lynch. The “square” part of the location’s name is a carryover from its earlier days when it actually fit such a description. To better understand how the space went from square to node, one must look back to the very beginning of this space and watch how it grew and evolved over time .

Kryukov Canal; taken by Rachel Faith, summer 2012
The Kryukov Canal, looking from the edge of Theater Square towards New Holland Island

Theater Square’s area first began to form as a defined space with the building of transportation paths and around it. By the definition of Kevin Lynch in his work “The City Image”, a path is a channel along which movement occurs with any varying degree of regularity (Lynch). In the area of Theater square, four paths serve to define the space: Dekabristov Street, Soyuza Pechatnikov Street, the Kryukov Canal, and the Griboedov Canal. All of these paths were built to facilitate and expand movement throughout the young city of St Petersburg as it spread further out into the surrounding countryside. Through their intersecting, they set the space which would later be developed into Theater Square apart from the surrounding land.The first of these paths appeared back in 1719 with the building of the Kryukov Canal, the square’s current western border. Built from 1719 to 1720 specifically for transportation purposes, this canal originally stretched from the Moika to the Neva. The section from the Neva to the Admiralty Canal was filled up in 1842, and today it runs 1015m from the

Theater Square, taken from an 1844 map of St. Petersburg, highlighting by Rachel Faith;  http://www.bergbook.com/htdocs/Cache321.htm
The Kryukov Canal

Admiralty to the Fontanka. The creation of this canal, along with that of the Admiralty, also formed New Holland Island, which is located not far off of the northwestern corner of the square. The Kryukov had granite embankments added to it from 1801 to 1807, and six bridges currently span it. It was named in 1783 in honor of the contractor Semen Kyukov. (Priyutko. Kryukov…).


The southern and eastern sides of the square were both formed around 1739 through the

Soyuza Pechatnikov Street; taken by Rachel Faith, summer 2012
Soyuza Pechatnikov Street as it runs along Theater Square

creation of Soyuza Pechatnikov Street and the Griboedov Canal. Soyuza Pechatnikov Street currently runs from the Kryukov Canal to Kulibina Square. Like many places in St. Petersburg, this street has gone through a couple name changes. In 1739 it was named Bolshaya Matrosskaya Street , which was then changed to Torgovaya Street in 1776. The name which it bears now was given in 1925 in honor of the 20th anniversary of the of the Union of Printing Workers. This union was quartered at 25 Soyuza Pechatnikov Street, and a plaque can be found at this address today in memory of the street’s present namesake (Priyutko, Soyuza…).

Griboedov Canal; taken by Rachel Faith, summer 2012
Renovations being done to the granite embankments of the Griboedov Canal, June 2012

The Griboyedov Canal is found curving slightly away from the square on its eastern

Theater Square, taken from an 1844 map of St. Petersburg, highlighting by Rachel Faith;  http://www.bergbook.com/htdocs/Cache321.htm
Soyuza Pechatnikov Street (red) and the Griboedov Canal (orange)

side, separated from it by a block of buildings located directly on the square. This canal was connected to the Moika in 1739, and currently stretches 5 km from the Moika at the Field of Mars to the Fontanka at the Malo-Kalinkin Bridge. In 1764-90, the canal was deepened and covered with granite embankment, as well as receiving a name change in 1767 to Ekaterininsky Canal, which held until 1923. The embankments currently allow for one-way traffic, and the river, approximately 32m wide, is spanned by 21 bridges (Contacts; Privalov).

The space which would come to be Theater Square was fully enclosed in the 1740s with the addition of Dekabristov Street, its northern border. At the time when it was laid, it was called Ofitserskaya Street, and ran through the area where the Admiralty Board attendants lived. This area, called the Officers’ Settlement, was the namesake of the street until 1918, when it was renamed in honor of the Decemberist Movement. The buildings along this street range in origin from the 18th to 20th centuries, and tram lines were set into the street itself in the 1920s  (Nikitenko, Dekabiristov…). The street currently extends from Voznesensky Avenue to Pryazhka River Embankment.

Theater Square, taken from an 1844 map of St. Petersburg, highlighting added by Rachel Faith; http://www.bergbook.com/htdocs/Cache321.htm
Dekabristov Street
Dekabristov Street; taken by Rachel Faith, summer 2012
Dekabristov Street

The final additions to the area which defined it as a public square were those of the carousel and first theater it housed. The square, originally called Carousel Square, was laid in the 1760s, and throughout the 1760s and 70s was known best for the equestrian evens, called carousels, housed there in amphitheaters erected on the square. A small wooden structure was also built to house dramas and Italian operas. In 1783, the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater was built on the square by the architect А. Rinaldi at the current location of the Music Conservatory. The theater was run by the Russian imperial court company which is the origin of the company of the modern Mariinsky Theater, and which, along with other branches of the court theater, took its origins Empress Anna’s private Italian Company, which was meant for court entertainment. This new company, established in the same year as the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater, had ownership of Italian and French Opera troupes, a drama troupe, a ballet company, and an orchestra. The theater built on Carousel Square was intended to be one of their venues, in which dramas, comedies, and operas would be performed, and most importantly provided a space in which the court theater could carry out a new decree of Catherine II; in the same year as the founding of the Bolshoi Kamenny, Catherine declared that court troupes must preform a certain number of shows for the public each month. Places such as the Bolshoi Kamenny served as stages outside on the court upon which the imperial theater could preform for the masses (Porfiryeva, Kruzhnov). In the early 1800s, the square’s name officially changed from “Carousel” to “Theater” in honor of its new centerpiece.

During the same time, life on the borders of the square was developing as well. At the corner of Theater Square where Soyuza Pechatnikov Street and the Griboedov Canal meet, an important spot of political activity within the city began to develop: the Green Lamp Society met from 1819 to 1820 at number 8 Theater Square, right at the intersection of these two paths. Although structured and showcased as a literary society, the literature presented there had an interestingly political tone, specifically one to the tune of  anti-tsarism, and the society served as one of the roots of the Decemberist movement. Among its regular attendants were such literary figures as D. N. Barkov, F. N. Glinka, N. I. Gnedich, A. A. Delwig, P. P. Kaverin, Y. N. Tolstoy, S. P. Trubetskoy, A. D. Ulybyshev, and N. V. Vsevolozhsky, owner of the flat in which the meetings were held (Akhapkin). Such meetings were also held in number 109 on the Griboedov, which is not directly facing the square but falls within the perimeter created by the Giboedov Canal, and finally at 18 Theater Square, where the Kryukov intersects Soyuza Pechatnikov. It was at this address in January of 1820 that the members of  the Main Board of the Union of Workers (many of whom had previously been associated with the Green Lamp Society) made the decision to actively fight to achieve a republican government (Margolis, Decemberists). In spite of the fact that Theater Square had only been around for slightly more that 50 years, it was already becoming a place where important figures within literature and politics (albeit underground politics) were gathering and exchanging ideas. This atmosphere combines well with the tremendous meeting and conversing among theatrical and musical greats which was beginning to develop through the presence of a branch of the Imperial Theater company the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater.

Another important aspect of the life of the square was the Lithuanian Castle prison. Although it is no longer a part of the modern square’s scenery, having been burnt down in 1917 during the revolution, it was a long-time companion to the square, and contributed greatly to the kind of people who could be found in the area.  The prison was built from 1783 to 1787 under the architect I.E. Starov in the space which is currently ocupied by 27 and 29 Dekabristov Street. This building was originally used as a palace for various guard regiments; its name relates back to the regiment of Lithuanian musketeers who lived in the palace during the late 18th century. In 1823-24 it was rebuilt into a prison by I.I. Charlemagne, and received further reconstruction in 1883-84 under architect K.I. Reymers. During its time as a prison, the Lithuanian Castle held prisoners being punished for all sorts of crimes, form petty to violent and eventually including political in the second half of the 19th century(Margolis, Lithuanian…). These people, although imprisoned, were far from removed from the life of the city and the square. Prisoners would be taken out into the city during the day to work, and  some criminals convicted of less serious crimes would occasionally be granted day passes and allowed to leave the prison for a while. Due to the prison’s proximity to the square, these prisoners would have frequently traversed the square and its borders, becoming a regular fixture of the square’s scenery and atmosphere.

Looking at this engraving from 1815, one can get an idea of how the space was set up in its early days. The view comes from what would now approximately be the corner of Dekabristov and Glinka Street. One sees the Bolshoi Stone theater standing opposite a wide open space where the Mariinsky Theater would later be located, rows of buildings along Soyuza Pechatnikov Street, and the evidence of traffic along the area where Glinka Street currently lies, bisecting the square and leading towards St. Nicholas’ Cathedral (also visible in the background of the engraving).

Theater Square, engraving, 1815
Theater Square, engraving, 1815

Both in form and function, Theater Square appears a great deal more like a square in its earlier days. To begin with, it actually looks like a square; the open space in front of the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater is exactly the kind of space we imagine when someone talks about a public square. The only visible paths of non-pedestrian transportation appear to be  along the edges of the square on Dekabristov and Soyuza Pechatnikov, and directly in front of the theater in the area of the current Glinki Street, leaving the rest of the space across from the theater free for pedestrians to wander and gather. Before the construction of the theater, one can imagine how this pedestrian space would have been even larger. People at that time took advantage of such space; beyond the carousel and theatrical structure, the open area of the square was used for fetes, dancing, and music. This period of use presents a square that follows Camillo Sitte’s idea of the square as a place of practical public gathering and traffic, as a place of theater, festivities, ceremonies, and public presentations (Sitte). The expansiveness of the square, especially in the days when it housed the carousels, was help by the fact that it was at the time located at the edge of the city, and therefore was not so tightly bound in by large rows of buildings and busy streets. Even after the open-air venues were replaced by the more formal, enclosed Bolshoi Kamenny Theater, the vitality of public life in the square would hardly have been dimmed. One of the main purposes of this theater was to provide a venue in which the court theater could cater to the citizens of Saint Petersburg on a regular basis. The square and the streets on its edges probably received steady traffic of actors, theater staff, and viewers coming to and from shows and rehearsals, as well as the congregation on the open square which surely happened before and after shows. Additionally, the prisoners of the Lithuanian Castle would be consistant participants within the space of the square, moving about it and the paths around it as they went about their work and free time, and adding a grimy, slightly dangerous feel to literary minds the crowds of theater goers who used the space. The consistently public and open nature of the square and the entertainment which occurred on it would have kept the public actively involved in this space in a way which suits Sitte’s definition of a square in terms of social atmosphere while also preserving a structure which matches the universally held image of how a square should look.

The square took a defining turn in its structure in 1849, when the wooden Circus-Theater was built across from the Bolshoi Kameny by the architect Cavos. In keeping with the previous uses of the square, this building was meant for equestrian shows, but was also built in such a way that it could function as a theater. In 1859, the Circus-Theater burned down, and in its place Cavos built a new theater which was named “Mariinsky” in honor of Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of the current tsar, Nicholas II. The Mariinsky opened its stage with Glinka’s “A Life for the Tsar” in 1860, and within a few years was well on its way to becoming one of the greatest theaters in Russia. The troupe which had previously been playing in the Bolshoi Kameny was eventually moved over to the Mariinsky, where it remains to this day, and the Bolshoi Kameny was destroyed and rebuilt into the building currently used as the Conservatory (Mariinsky Theatre).

In terms of the rest of the square, the importance of the Mariinsky’s appearance lies not in the cultural and artistic greatness which it would come

The Mariinsky Theater, end of the 19th century; http://www.alexanderpalace.org/petersburg1900/45.html
The Mariinsky Theater, end of the 19th century

to represent, but its position opposite the Bolshoi Kamenny. When it took over the open area across from the other theater, it swallowed up a majority of the space that had been free to pedestrians and had put the “square” in Theater Square. The geometry of the space was completely disrupted; with the Mariinsky’s back directly on the Kryukov Canal, an entire side of the square was lost to pedestrian access, and one had to circumnavigate the Mariinsky in order to get from Soyuza Pechatnikov Street to Dekabristov Street, whereas one could have simply walked through the square before. The square took on more of a closed- in atmosphere, particularly in the small canyon between the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi Kamenny Theater,  and the open, pedestrian friendly space had been reduced to four miniature squares on the north and south sides of the theaters, separated by Glinki Street and bound in by the residential buildings and the back wings of the Mariinsky.

At this point, one could possibly still argue that this space was rightfully called a square. Although the area in which people could wander, gather, and interact was significantly smaller than before, such space still did exist, particularly on the south side of the square, where the longer wing of the Mariinsky is located. Even if the form of the square remained, though, the function had taken a significant hit. With two serious enclosed theaters on the square now, it was highly unlikely that the festivals, equestrian events, and public gatherings of past years would continue to occur on the square. With such large, prestigious performance venues right next to you, why bother putting your sets and actors out on the dirty street? Furthermore, the societal atmosphere which  these theaters would have promoted would not have been conducive to such activities. As the quality and prestige of the Mariinsky grew, it began to attract the strong and continued attention of the upper class, including the tsar and his closest relatives. Boxes in the theater became a much coveted possession, and eventually the only way to obtain such a seat was to have it already in the possession of a relative or friend, or go through the often unsuccessful process of filing a petition with Chancery of the Imperial Theatres (St. Petersburg 1900…). Going to the ballet, particularly in the Mariinsky, was now a fashionable hobby particularly valued in the upper-class; such a mind-set would only have been detrimental to the casual open-air theatrics which were once shown on Theater Square back in the days of the carousel. Although there still might have been space around the Mariinsky and Bolshoi Kamenny (soon to be Conservatory), it was no longer being used in the socially interactive sense of public gatherings and entertainment which Sitte describes as so crucial to the nature of a square.

Theater Square; taken by Rachel Faith, summer of 2012
The miniature park on the northern side of the Conservatory, looking down Dekabristov towards the Kryukov Canal

The final nail in the coffin would have been the conversion of the open space on either side of the Mariinsky into the parking area it is used as today, possibly occuring with carriages, but guaranteed with the proliferation of the automobile. With this, pedestrian area would become limited to the thin, narrow stretches on either side of the Conservatory, surrounded by wide busy streets. This is how the square appears today. Although those stretches are pleasant enough in their own small way, with intriguing  monuments of Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov and several rows of trees, they are not places one would want to linger for lunch or a conversation with a friend; the noise and smell of the traffic pouring through the square (particularly on Glinka and Dekabristov Streets) make these small, greenish spaces good only for a gathering point before a show or a smoking break in between music classes.

So if Theater Square is no longer a square, what has it become? I would argue that it greater resembles a node, as defined by Lynch. He describes a node as “…strategic spots in a city which the observer can enter, and which are the intensive foci to and from which he is traveling. They may be primarily junctions, places of a break in transportation, a crossing or convergence of paths, moments of shift from one structure to another. Or nodes maybe simply concentrations, which gain their importance from being the condensation for some use or physical character,as a street-corner hangout or an enclosed square…Many nodes, of course, partake of the nature of both junctions and concentrations. The concept of the node is related to the concept of the path, since junctions are usually the convergence of paths…” (Lynch). This description fits the modern Theater Square beautifully.

First of all, “intensive foci” to and from which one travels is a phrase which embodies the current attractive nature of the square. Contained within this space are two of Russia’s greatest focal points of music, the theatrical arts, and education in such spheres. People come not only from all over the city and country, but from all over the world to Theater Square to experience what these places have to offer. This presents Theater Square in the sense of a concentration, a an extreme, high quality condensation of the arts in an area which is otherwise not an arts or theater district. Due to this concentrated nature and the way the paths around Theater Square very clearly define the borders of the space, the square also fits Lynch’s requirement in a physical and conceptual sense of being a spot into which an observer can enter.

Furthermore, Theater Square has very close links to the concept of paths, as Lynch says nodes often do, and while the square has always had a

Bus stop in front of the Mariinksy; taken by Rachel Faith, summer 2012
Bus stop in front of the Mariinksy; taken by Rachel Faith, summer 2012

relation to the paths running around and through it, that relationship now has become stronger and more important than ever. Although back in the 18th century one could get around the square by traveling along the paths of the streets an canals around the square or simply crossings the open space of the square, now that this pedestrian expanse is gone, people rely solely on the paths to make their way around the square. The paths that once formed the boundaries of the square are now its regions of freest movement. Furthermore, these converging paths give the square a junction aspect. Theater Square in this way can be seen as a vast intersection; as you come across the Kryukov on Dekabristov Street or take Glinki Street towards its bridge over the Moika and later the Neva, Theater Square is the place where you are called to look at your route and determine where you are going. Should you keep heading past the two towering buildings in the middle of the square and continue towards the Neva, or would it maybe be better to turn onto Soyuza Pechatnikov Street and then onto the one-way embankment on the Griboedov? This intersection of routes is further enforced by the bus stop in front of the theater, and would have had the same interaction with the tram track which once lay on Dekabristov Street. These transportation routes present the idea of a path in an even farther reaching sense than the streets on which they lay; the bus route may follow Glinki Street for a while, but it is greater than the confines of that street, winding through the city on different avenues and side streets before and after if follows Glinki. One could consider it’s overlap with Glinki Street a kind of intersection, coming together on top of Glinki Street while both the buss route and the street simultaneously intersect with Soyuza Pechatnikov, Dekabristov, and whichever routes of public transportation which might lie on top of them. All of these paths come together in the pulsing node and transportation junction that is Theater Square.

The question that remains is where the structure of the square will head in the future. Will it continue to be a node, or will it progress into something different? Would it ever be possible for the square to return to its original structure and function? In terms of the second question, I would say the answer is almost certainly no, the area will never truly be a square again. In order to physically achieve the state of the square, some building within or on the edge of the space would need to be destroyed. Due, however, to the extreme fame and cultural value of the Mariinsky and Conservatory, it is inconceivable that either of them would be purposely destroyed. Even if one were to stop functioning in its current manner, it would most likely be turned into a museum in honor of its historical legacy. As for the buildings on the edge of the square, their age (most of them originating in the 18th and 19th centuries) and the variety of important historical figures who have lived in them give them cultural value, making it unlikely that they would be destroyed simply to achieve more open space. When it comes to the uses which could define the space as a public square, the primary deterrent would be the extreme spacial limits. When compared to other, far more expansive public spaces such as the Palace Square in front of the Hermitage, the chance for Theater Square to come out on top in the choice of where to hold a major public event are virtually non-existent.

As to the question of the square’s future structure, it still remains difficult to say for sure what will happen. On one hand, it is plausible that Theater Square might permanently retain its function as a node. There is little doubt that the Mariinksy and Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory will remain world leaders in ballet, music, opera, and artistic education, and will attract crowds of visitors for many years to come. In this way, the square wouldn’t lose its power as focal point to  and from which people travel, and so long as this holds true, it is unlikely that the paths leading to, wrapping around, and intersecting on the square would be eliminated, causing the square to lose its status as a junction. In fact, it seems far more likely that more paths of various types will be added to the junction; in our interview with the Tom Farell, owner of the Shamrock Pub on Theater Square, he expressed the belief that sooner or later, the as of yet unfulfilled plans for building a metro station on or by the square would eventually come to fruition. The greatest doubt as to the square’s current form and function being enduring lies in the building of the Mariinsky’s second stage and the possible conflict this might cause with the square’s nature as a concentration. For many years, the Mariinsky and the Conservatory had existed as a small but intense island of the arts in their area of the city, bound in neatly by the paths which had always defined the edges of Theater Square. In 2006, however,  a new concert hall was built for the Mariinsky off of the square at 37 Dekabristov Street, and now the construction of the Mariinsky’s second stage on the west embankment of the Krykov, conceived in 2001, is due to be finished by the end of 2012. These tendrils of the Mariinsky stretching our into the surrounding area start to bring into question the strength and importance of the square as a single, compact place in both structure and cultural relevance, and cause one to wonder just how much physical growth might be in the Mariinsky’s future. If new halls and stages continued to develop throughout the neighborhood over the years, it’s possible that the node of Theater Square could diffuse into a larger, more general theater district. At the same time, though, the square could still remain a node by being the central, most potent embodiment of the greater district. Without a doubt, the growth of the Mariinsky will play an important role in how the space which we call Theater Square is defined and used, but the exact nature which definitions and uses will take on is still hard to predict.


Works Cited:

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