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As one of the richest men in the world, oil billionaire J. Paul Getty could afford to indulge in expensive hobbies. Getty’s hobby was collecting art, which he initially displayed in a small gallery near his home in a canyon in Pacific Palisades, on the coast north of Los Angeles. But the burgeoning collection soon demanded a larger venue. Since many of the works were Greek and Roman antiquities, he decided to replace the gallery with an authentic reproduction of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, as preserved by the same eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii in 79 CE. This original Getty Museum opened in 1974.
Getty never visited his villa, as he had moved permanently to England in the 1960s. He made an even more permanent move out of corporeal existence in 1976. But he did not let that minor inconvenience end his art collecting endeavors. A lavish bequest, administered by his long-established Museum Trust, made the Getty Museum the wealthiest art institution in the world.
By 1983, the collection was once again threatening to outgrow its
museum space. With effectively unlimited funds at their disposal, the
Getty trustees chose a suitably swanky location in Brentwood on the west
side of Los Angeles. On a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains 269
meters above sea level, the site is removed from the urban sprawl but
easily accessible through its own off-ramp on the 405 Freeway. The
45-hectare site has room enough for a commodious museum, and also for
the headquarters of the Getty Trust and its various institutions devoted
to art research and conservation. On clear days— usually after a winter
storm has all too briefly swept away the normal veil of haze and smog—
the hill offers a wide-ranging view across the Los Angeles Basin to the
surrounding ocean and mountains.
In 1984, the Getty trustees selected Richard Meier’s proposal for a thoroughly modernistic campus. The design features Meier’s distinctive blend of squares, rectangles, and curves, all dressed in his signature white. It harmonizes with the natural topography that includes two divergent ridges. The major challenge was complying with notoriously convoluted zoning and environmental regulations, and satisfying the persnickety regulators who interpret them. He also had to satisfy neighbors’ concerns about traffic and views, which is why he limited the height of the buildings and put much of the facility underground (mainly sections not open to the public). Clearing all those hurdles delayed the start of construction until August 1989; and further complications during construction delayed the opening until December 1997. The original $350 million budget plan ballooned to nearly $1.3 billion.
When the new Getty Center was finally ready, the trustees transferred all the art from the old facility, which they renamed the Getty Villa and closed for a makeover. When the villa reopened— after its own share of delays— in January 2006, the Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities moved back there. The Getty Center houses the rest of the collection: “Pre-20th-century European paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and decorative arts; and 19th- and 20th-century American and European photographs.” “J. Paul Getty Museum” became the umbrella term for the twin sites, a designation apparently confusing enough to require a (trademarked) slogan: One Getty, Two Locations. But the phrase “at the Getty,” referring to an artistic or cultural event, specifically means the Brentwood location.
Rather than taking up valuable space at the hilltop site, Meier put the museum’s only public entrance at the bottom of the hill, along with its underground parking lot (seven levels deep, to accommodate summer and weekend crowds). From there you board an automated electric tram for a five-minute ride up the hill. The tram is both a practical and aesthetic part of Meier’s design, intended to give visitors the feeling of “being elevated out of their day-to-day experience.”
The upper tram station exits into the Arrival Plaza, from which you can either explore the grounds or ascend the Grand Stairway to enter a spacious and appropriately grandiose entrance hall. That leads to four gallery buildings that contain the museum’s permanent collection. These bear the disappointingly unimaginative names of the cardinal compass points. A fifth pavilion is dedicated to temporary exhibitions.
The first gallery after the entrance hall is the North Pavilion, containing “art before 1700.” You can view the collection chronologically by following a clockwise sequence, proceeding to the East and South Pavilions (1600-1800), and finally to the West Pavilion (“art after 1800,” including photography). The lower level of all the pavilions contains sculpture, furniture, and “decorative arts.” Paintings are on the upper level, where a system of skylights, computer-controlled louvers, and artificial lighting maximizes natural illumination to minimize energy use.
There is no requirement to visit the galleries in that sequence. Each pavilion has easy access to the central Museum Courtyard. And on the way from the South Pavilion to the West Pavilion, you can make a detour outside to view the South Promontory and its desert garden of cactus and succulents from around the world.
To give the museum buildings and the courtyard pavement a “classical” look, Meier clad them in 80-centimeter squares of special Italian travertine. Each square has a different color and finish, from pure white to orange/brown. They’re randomly jumbled in a kind of mosaic. The non-museum buildings are clad in white matte aluminum squares, as are the contrasting curved sections of the museum pavilions. Late afternoon sunlight paints the white building facades in warm golden tones.
I hope the Getty trustees have a sufficient collection of spare
travertine squares stored away. Travertine is calcium carbonate, the
protean stuff of marble, eggshells, pearls, chalk,
tufa, and Tums. Acidic
air pollution from twentieth century automobiles has done more damage to
ancient marble in Athens and Rome than twenty centuries of neglect,
plunder, and erosion. The Getty Center’s travertine faces the same
threat from Los Angeles smog.
Richard Meier was not the Getty Center’s only architect. The campus includes a 12,400 square meter Central Garden designed by the landscape architect and installation artist Robert Irwin. A genre originating in the 1970s, “installation art” transforms an interior or exterior environment into an “immersive” work meant to engage multiple senses. It encourages visitors to actively “experience” the art rather than passively “viewing” it.
The environment for Irwin’s work is a ravine on the west side of the campus. Red bougainvilleas growing in arbors fashioned from rusted iron rods mark the boundary, announcing to visitors that what they’re about to enter is no garden-variety garden. A path planted with trees and flowers intersects a stream strewn with stones that create a “sound sculpture” as the water flows over them. As the stream reaches the ravine, it cascades down a stone waterfall into a circular pool, in which three intersecting mazes of azaleas appear to float.
Surrounding the pool is a constantly changing array of plantings, all
selected to enhance the sensory experience of visitors who stroll
through them along an intentionally convoluted path. The living
kaleidoscope of over 500 different plant species embodies Irwin’s motto
for the work, engraved in the travertine floor of the plaza above the
garden: Always changing, never twice the same. (That motto
reminds me of the North American analog color television system, called
NTSC. A design flaw— corrected in the later systems used in Europe—
made consistent color nearly impossible to achieve, leading some
broadcast engineers to insist that NTSC stood for Never Twice the
To ancient Romans, people and places had a divine or supernatural aspect or spirit that they called a genius. At the entrance to any upper-class Roman house was a shrine to the family founder’s genius. During the Imperial period, citizens venerated the emperor’s divinity at a temple to his genius. (The modern use of this word figuratively refers to a “divine or supernatural” endowment of talent or intelligence.) It might be appropriate to consider the Getty Center a shrine to J. Paul Getty’s genius, in the ancient Roman fashion.
Of course, few if any of the 1.3 million people who visit the Getty Center each year are there to venerate J. Paul Getty. But many do enjoy the continuing results of his passion for art, even if they never venture inside the galleries. You can be “immersed” in art merely by exploring the campus and the Central Garden, picnicking on the grass in front of the plaza, or admiring the view. And perhaps some of the feeling of being elevated out of your day-to-day experience might linger, even after you’ve descended the hill and battled the traffic on the 405 Freeway to get home.