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 provincial centers of culture. A government directive stated that any city with a population over 200,000 should have its own drama theater. Novgorod the Great was one of them.
In 1973 architect Vladimir Somov was working at the Giproteater, an organization responsible for the implementation of the nation-wide theatre construction plan. The head architect of Giproteater asked Somov to come up with few ideas for future Novgorod Drama Theater.
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.
Initially, the Ministry bureaucrats did not like Somov’s design, but not because they thought it was too radical. In fact, architect’s 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 Soviet authorities in 1975.
Somov designed the building 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 experimented 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. According to Somov the exterior design of the theater, 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. Conventionally 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.
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.” 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 project’s chief engineer, which gave him near total control over the construction.
It took twelve long years to build the theatre. Much could have gone wrong during that time, but despite the cold Russian winters and typical Soviet supply problems, the construction moved along with super-slow, but sure persistence. From the very beginning the theater building was executed in stages. When the theatre’s foundation was already laid, the design, approved by the Ministry of Culture, was still lacking many specific details and calculations. That significantly slowed down the builders, who at no time had complete blueprints with which to work.
In those days “dolgostroi” or “long-term construction” was very common, especially when it came to large, urban public buildings. Objects of culture were the very the last to receive funding from the Soviet financial institutions. Two or three months out of the year, the government would reassign professional work force to other, more “important” projects. To keep up with the theater's construction, the local communist party would recruit common folks, university students and even school children. No wonder that people of Novgorod resented the theater so much. They were enlisted, even forced to build it with their own hands. And built it they did, just not very well.
Today, the Novgorod Drama Theatre is a slowly dying architectural masterpiece. When walking through the building’s foyers and the performance hall, climbing the maze of its technical facilities, one can not help but notice the horrendous decay spreading all throughout this otherwise perfectly functioning theater. The dangerous mix of post-Soviet inertia and the draconian pragmatism of new capitalist Russia have become Novgorod Theatre’s new worst enemy. The corrupt political climate in regional Russia and the retrograde mentality of Novgorod city folk are working together, helping to speed up the demise of the theatre complex.