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Roger Watts’ new role at Somov’s Dostoevsky Drama Theatre

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

It’s panto time and Russian architect Vladimir Somov’s nutty but run-down 1987 Dostoevsky Drama Theatre in Veliky Novgorod is in line for a revamp. The competition for the job is being curated by Haworth Tompkins director Roger Watts. RIBAJ asks him what’s behind it

How did Haworth Tompkins end up being involved with this crazy Russian project?

Somov was an eccentric architect and this was a fantastic, sculptural, futuristic building in an otherwise ancient city. The competition is for emerging architects and so my ‘curator’ role was set up to help with both selection and in mentoring through the design process. Competition organiser Strelka KB invited us to join in a consultation role. It’s an unusual and exotic building and it feels right to hand it over to the next generation of thinkers who will approach its challenges in a fresh way.

Tell us something about Somov. He said he designed it so you could drive a tank from the street to the stage…

He was a Russian radical and abstract painter too, which was politically brave at the time. He saw his design as a form of ‘total theatre’, so both building and its sculpted landscape were part of a wider imaginative experience, away from reality – a primer for the theatrical event within. It’s a mix of brutalism and fantasy.

  • Credit: Strelka KB
  • Credit: Strelka KB
  • Credit: Strelka KB
  • Credit: Strelka KB
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With moveable auditorium configurations, it sounds like it was an innovative design? 

Seeing it in the wider context of flexible performance spaces it isn’t that innovative. What’s unusual about it is the abstraction of the whole design; it’s super-saturated with curious forms both in and around it. The auditorium’s fairly conventional but as a whole it’s got incredible energy and power. 

And what are the main challenges?

It really is quite special; full of exposed concrete carved with sumptuous and alien decoration, quite the opposite from the rationality of Lasdun’s National Theatre! The big challenge for the eventual designer is that they’ll need to work harder to make it more open to the public, be open all day, have cafés and events to embed it in the city’s life. It has clear accessibility and sustainability issues at the moment so it will need work to overcome these and realise its potential. Hopefully young firms will approach it with a new bravery.

And how did you get to the shortlist of Archiproba Studios, FORM bureau and Rhizome group?

There was a longlist earlier this year which got whittled down to three. We were looking for a sensitivity to the building and its issues and to see if they could handle its hard-headed practical problems and precious, surreal nature. They had to provide examples where they displayed both these aspects. The competition has very specific requirements but it is also open to blue sky thinking. We are having three rounds of workshops with each of the firms and there will be a final presentation and judging this month.

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