ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Here in this bastion of all that is traditional, all that is classical, modern architecture may soon rear its deconstructivist head.
"It's the crucial moment for St. Petersburg," warns Simeon I. Mikhailovsky, an architectural historian with horn-rimmed glasses, gamely striving to remain calm as the barbarians gather their forces.
What haunts Mikhailovsky and his allies are blueprints being drafted in offices around the world. Eleven of the world's leading architectural firms are vying to design a $100 million, 2,000-seat theater for the Mariinsky Theater, home to the world-renowned Kirov opera and ballet companies. And all the contestants, Mikhailovsky says, are expected to submit unapologetically modern designs.
The Kremlin and city officials recently unveiled the details of this international architectural contest, Russia's first since Josef Stalin sought proposals for a mammoth Palace of Soviets near the Kremlin in 1931. (The project was never built.)
St. Petersburg's 3,000 grand palaces, its graceful stone bridges and network of canals have survived revolution, bombardment and decades of neglect. Aside from a clunky Soviet-era Palace of Culture here, a bleak Stalin-era office building there, the city's center mostly escaped the architectural outrages inflicted on Moscow and other Russian cities.
As a result, what is sometimes called the "Venice of the North" survived as an outdoor museum of architectural styles of the 18th and 19th centuries. To many visitors, the city feels as melancholy and magical as it must have when Dostoyevsky and Pushkin stalked its streets.
And many among Petersburg's conservative cognoscenti aim to keep it that way.
But resistance to change here has collided with the cultural ambitions of one of the city's biggest stars, Valery Gergiev, the acclaimed conductor and director of the Mariinsky.
Gergiev has lobbied for years for a new theater complex, to be built near the old one. The richly ornamental, pastel-green Mariinsky, built in 1860 and named after a czarina, struggles to produce modern operas and ballets in its cramped quarters, using 19th-century scenery technology.
The conductor has talked about creating an architectural showpiece, like Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, London's Tate Modern or Paris' Pompidou Center. A splashy post-modernist project, supporters say, could create an international sensation, drawing crowds of tourists and culture-lovers to the Mariinsky and its struggling hometown.
That could help enhance St. Petersburg's status as a world cultural capital - a position that is being acknowledged as far away as Baltimore, where the Vivat! festival (to March 2) is celebrating the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg.
"Because we love St. Petersburg for great architectural achievements in the 18th and 19th centuries," Gergiev told reporters recently, "maybe we'll take a risk and make something surprising in the 21st century."
Last year, Gergiev came close to hiring Eric Owen Moss, an acclaimed Los Angeles architect, to build the new theater, which will be across the stone-lined Kryukov Canal from the old one.
Moss has proposed a glass- and granite-blob that alludes to an iceberg, hardly an unwarranted image for Russia-of-the-long-winter. Local residents scorned it. It looked, they said, like mussorny meshok- garbage bags - by locals. One Russian newspaper branded Moss a "hooligan." And St. Petersburg's chief architect denounced the Californian's design as "empty nonsense" on Russian television.
Mikhailovsky, a prominent member of the faculty at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts, says he likes modern architecture, just not in his back yard. He reckons that no important buildings have been erected in St. Petersburg in at least a century.
Mikhailovsky says Moss made his reputation turning a bleak warehouse neighborhood in Culver City, Calif., into a hotbed of Internet and entertainment companies. Los Angeles, the historian says emphatically, is certainly not St. Petersburg.
"I think he was not prepared for this city, either emotionally or intellectually," Mikhailovsky says.
Mikhail Shvydkoi, Russia's minister of culture, agrees. In an interview in Moscow, Shvydkoi praised Moss' creativity.
"But he never felt the atmosphere of St. Petersburg when he created his project," the minister says. "You talk with the people who have lived in the city for 25 or 50 years, and they have an image of St. Petersburg. He came from outside; he didn't come from this atmosphere. And this was a problem."
On the other hand, Shvydkoi says, the city must accept change. "It's impossible to repeat Rossi or Rastrelli," the two 18th-century Italian architects who built much of St. Petersburg, he says. "This would be absolutely wrong. Of course, this must be a modern building."
Meanwhile, Moss has told reporters he was puzzled by the whole affair. He thought he had won the contract to build the new theater, after intense discussions with Gergiev last year. (A St. Petersburg official says Moss had merely submitted an "initial proposal.")
But the American is still in the running. He was one of 11 architects the Kremlin invited to join the competition, formally launched Jan. 14 during a news conference at the Hermitage State Museum here.
Five other foreigners are in the running. They include such luminaries as Dominique Perrault, who designed the French National Library in Paris, and Hans Hollein of Vienna, winner of architecture's Pritzker Prize, who has designed Guggenheim museums for Vienna and Salzburg in Austria. Five of Russia's most prominent architects will submit designs.
Not everyone in St. Petersburg is opposed to a contemporary addition to the Mariinsky.
"Five years ago, the citizens of St. Petersburg were against anything modern in the center," says Ludmilla N. Likhachova, an official with the city planning commission and executive secretary of the Mariinsky design competition. "Now, people are eager to see something new, something that will give them pride. It's a sign of St. Petersburg entering the 21st century."
Over the past 300 years, she says, most of St. Petersburg's architects have tried to harmonize architectural trends - Baroque, Classical, Empire and eclectic - with the city's master design. By and large, they succeeded, she says. "That's why the general line in the architecture has always been preserved."
To some Americans, the dumping of Moss suggested that Russian architects will go to elaborate lengths to stop foreigners from poaching on their turf. Likhachova disagrees.
"It's absolutely not true," says Likhachova. "This competition isn't designed to be won by a Russian. And it's not designed for a foreigner to win. It's for the best project to win."
Mikhailovsky will be curator of an exhibit of the entries, which opens June 2 at the Academy of Arts. A few weeks later, a 13-member international jury will choose the winner.
(Among the judges are Gergiev and Moss' archcritic, the St. Petersburg city architect. Others include Bill Lacy, director of the Pritzker prizes, and Joseph Clark of New York's Metropolitan Opera.)
Mikhailovsky says the contest might not settle the simmering dispute: There is still too much political opposition to change. Eventually, he hopes, the Kremlin and Gergiev can be persuaded to accept a more moderate, neo-classical design.
"For me, it is important to show the exhibit to people in St. Petersburg," he says. "But I think it's not the end."