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'In my opinion, an individual without any love of the arts cannot be considered completely civilized. At the same time, it is extremely difficult, and sometimes impossible, to interest people in works of art unless they can see them and know something about them.' J. Paul Getty, 1965

These remarks are the foundation of both the Getty Center as a whole, and the J. Paul Getty Museum that it now houses. In addition five other programmes, which focus on scholarship, conservation and education, occupy the other buildings within the hilltop citadel. Within the overall complex, the distinct and different forms of the museum, clustered around its courtyard, and the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, are the two major elements from which the design springs.

Both the original museum, in Getty's own Ranch House (circa 1952), and the later Roman Villa Museum (circa 1974), are sited in Malibu, and in common with Richard Meier's Getty Center (1997) in Brentwood, have vistas over the Pacific Ocean. Of these, the spectacular prospects of the latter are the crowning magnificence uniting art, nature and the city of Los Angeles.

John Walsh, director of the Getty Museum, explains in his introduction to the Getty collections - which now include antiquities, manuscripts, paintings, drawings, decorative arts, sculpture and works of art and photographs- the unparalleled expansion and improvement in these artistic areas '... that could not have been imagined when [the Getty Ranch House Museum] first opened in 1954, or even when the [Roman] Villa building opened in 1974. Since the early 1980s, hundreds of important new works of art have been acquired in the areas of the museum's three traditional interests, antiquities, French furniture and decorative arts, and European paintings, and thousands more have been acquired to form four new collections ...', and Walsh concludes." ... The works of art ... were brought to Los Angeles for the joy and enlightenment of the public'.(1)

Mission statement

This great cultural, artistic and social mission would never have been possible without the fabulous wealth of J. Paul Getty: 'At his death in June 1976, Getty bequeathed four million shares of Getty Oil stock worth about $700 million to his museum (the Roman Villa in Malibu), leaving it to the trustees' discretion to decide how the legacy should best be used. Although the assets would be tied up in the courts for some time to come, the collections grew impressively in the first years after he died through the receipt of Getty's private collection from Sutton Place (in Surrey, England) and some purchases ... By April 1982, with the receipt of the proceeds of Getty's estate, the Trust already had begun to prepare for its transformation from a small museum into a visual arts institution of international significance. Realizing that the new income represented an unparalleled opportunity to expand upon Getty's initial vision, Harold Williams (appointed as President and Chief Executive Officer of the J. Paul Getty Trust in 1981) and the trustees moved to set up other organizations that could operate in tandem with the Getty Museum in furtherance of Getty's mandate for: "the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge"?

These organizations included the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Information Institute, the Getty Education Institute for the Arts and the Getty Grant Program. To this has been subsequently added the Getty Leaderships Institute for Museum Management.

With the Museum itself, these Institutes and Getty's vast bequest form respectively the project programme and funding source for the Getty Center, which Richard Meier designed and built over some 13 years between 1984 and 1997.


When Meier himself first assessed the likely timeframe as 10 years, he could not possibly have perceived that this project could take even longer and culminate at a global cost of $1 billion, the official Getty figure, in December 1997.

Apart from the magnificent museum galleries, with the museum director and staff, the two institutions that most support the art and scholarship are the Conservation Institute and the Research Institute, with their activities concentrated at the Getty Center, within the Meier citadel.


In describing the creation of the architectural project in the documentary film, Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center, Meier - actively drawing the initial site plans - first defined the very limited area of the site that could receive the buildings, by delineating the contour encirclement in red. He then drew what he defined as 'the two major vectors' arising from the two principal ridges of the land-form. One vector, or axis, is normal to the LA grid and carried the centre-line of the museums clustered on the periphery of their courtyard. The other vector, deflected 22 1/2 degrees from the north-south axis, carries the centroid of the Research Institute. This geometry and placement of the two major elements of form, creates a third - the fan form of external space which receives the terraced Italianate garden, of Meier's early projects, terminating in a colonnaded breezeway whose crucial geometrical line unites the west pavilion of the museum cluster, with the Scholars Pavilion of the Research Institute. This in turn was followed by an amphitheatre which echoed the lower arroyo.

This summary proposes in principle a very simple and natural solution. It has remained constant throughout all the design development.

The museum courtyard (p42), and the surrounding enclosure of art galleries, is the principal public space of the Getty Center - it is also the finest, most beautifully crafted area of the whole complex. The extreme length of the space, at first sight, recalls the seaward-orientated court of Kahn's Salk Institute at La Jolla, and has a similar tranquillity and serene, spiritual aura, when unoccupied.

However, when fully loaded with people and events/such as on the inauguration day of 13 December 1997) the court, with its shade, light and sparkle of water comes alive with the vibrant humanity of a piazza in an Italian hill-town. Meier has consistently eschewed the deliberate comparison of this kind, insisting that the forms have arisen from the programme and topographical conditions. But the architectural grammar and language can hardly avoid this evocation.

The courtyard itself is enriched with many features which reinforce the Californian tradition and climatic opportunities. The use of fountains and water-tumbles is fundamental. A major linear watercourse with water jets defines the long axis of the space, paved in natural travertine in various forms and edged by shade-trees. This is followed by a further pool - the Boulder Fountain - which responds to the skewed 22 1/2 degree axis, at a 90 degree displacement. The boulders - a beautiful organic array - are of a Columbia Oregon origin and occur again, in an adjacent inner courtyard pool, at the centre of the east pavilion. Within the displaced cube and external colonnade of this nine-bay square cluster of galleries, a further accent is included that repeats at intervals throughout the entire complex: within the stone walls, special monumental feature stones are corbelled out to emphasize their complex fossiled surface.

The courtyard landscaping - both hard and soft - is splendidly detailed and promises a rich contrast to the rough stone envelope of the buildings. Already, deciduous Boston Ivy is adding an autumnal red warmth to the masonry surfaces.


Added to all this are the supreme and often unexpected vistas, outwards to mountains and ocean, across to the Research Institute, down to the museum cafe terraces swirling outwards below and inwards to the radiant top-lit rotunda - a volume that anchors the whole project, resplendent in 'Meier-white' - at the very heart of the whole architectural scheme.

One especially memorable outward vista occurs beneath the soffit of the raised special exhibit volume - a vast four-bay, cubistic piece of almost Egyptian scale - standing on monumental stone pilotis. In taking the outward views through the columnar space, Classical memories are evoked: the Bay of Piraeus from the Parthenon, or Schinkel's loggia of the Altes Museum come to mind. The distant views include Catalina Island and even the more deep and distant Pacific, on a clear day.

The design and finish of the museum galleries surrounding the courtyard has been the subject of much debate and exhaustive research. Ultimately, Meier has deferred to the wishes of museum director, John Walsh, and many of the spaces have been fitted out by Thierry Despont, in particular the decorative arts galleries, which include whole room installations - notably a garden-room by Ledoux - an axial mirrored interior, a Neo-Classical panelled room in cool grey and gold.

Many of the galleries, especially for paintings, are finished with colour-painted or fabric walls all related to the hang. These again reflect curatorial policy. However, and particularly in the atrium spaces transitional white volumes with top-light, frequently incorporating travertine staircases - the spirit of Meier's seminal Atlanta High Museum re-emerges. Equally in a few galleries, for instance those for sculpture in the north and west pavilions, Meier's original finishes have prevailed. These include Barco-travertine flooring, upstand edges and architrave reveals, a tobacco-walnut colour stone, with a honed finish. This is coupled with elegant, traditional self-coloured grey stucco.

Equally, in all other galleries (except special exhibits and decorative arts) Meier's details and principles have endured. The double-height cross-section and coneshaped lining, generally white, delivers even natural light. Known as 'The Dulwich', the gallery typology has developed the simple principles of John Soane. The most widely used finishes and details are light American oak floors, upstand edges and architrave linings. Picture-rail and louvered skirting act as linear air handlers. The rail supplies and skirting extracts yielding a constant environment to the wall surfaces.

The naturally illuminated art and the quality of experience of the museum pavilions, and their scale, interspersed with spaces of relief, provide an experience that must rank as one of the finest in the world of major art galleries.

Research Institute

The Research Institute (pp38-40), approached at museum plaza level, is, without doubt, the most serene and unified architecture and idea of the whole Getty Center ensemble. After many initial studies, it was decided the brief itself was flawed and did not yield the true expression of the programme. Meier's determination to pinpoint exactly the right solution for Kurt Forster (director at design stage), was eventually resolved in the circular form. The courtyarded form is cut open - a great wedge is voided - signalling rotation and openness. This project is aptly summarized as 'a path through the collections'.

Essentially a great combination of offices, study areas, library and special collections, for visiting scholars and resident staff, the Research Institute is centered on a spiralling glass ramp, which surrounds the central court. A massive beige-panelled structure, with a white centre, standing on a great archival stone plinth, which houses support facilities and some 26 miles of bookshelves in open and closed stacks, the building is pure Meier and Palladino (a principal in charge). It is clear that the union between client, programme and architect is complete, resolved and deeply fulfilled. The building has an atmosphere of deep joy, in its creation and existence. It is a superb place to study, work and relax.

The outrigger structure of the Institute is a Scholars Pavilion. As well as incorporating its own exhibit space, meeting room/auditorium and staff lounge/cafe - and its own linear courtyard and terrace with ocean views this key building has a signal position in the overall, now invisible geometric union of the whole building-group.

The Scholars Pavilion is remote and symbolic - the closest the Center comes to a monastic occupation and symbolism. Although sleeping and service accommodation was precluded, the individual studies with communal terraces are beautifully equipped for individual research and contemplation. The vistas from this building, especially from the roof terrace, are stunning and evocative of a real place of retreat and scholarship, such as one might find in an Oxbridge college.

The sparse, minimal nature of the fine metal and glass architecture, the roof-pergolas and brise-soleil outriggers all seem to recall the spirit and intention of Richard Neutra's Californian Modernism. Richard Meier is proud, and rightly, of this homage and equally recognizes the legacy of the legendary Angeleno, Rudolph Schindler: the relation of interior and exterior space, external circulation, shade and the whole celebration of the elating and intoxicating Californian climate - and the glorious daylight, awe-inspiring sunsets and radiant blue skies.

It is, as yet, too early to fully judge or appreciate the ultimate success of Californian artist Robert Irwin's central garden. A jagged thunderbolt-pathway of aggressive cor-ten sided pathways zigzagging across, and boulder watercourse, descends in the central wedge to an azalea-ringed water pool. This device, and the use of levels deliberately denies the culminating prospect of the Pacific Ocean. With its gravel floor surfaces and lawns of bright grass, it does not yield the potential of being the most significant public space of the whole project. Its use of black stone and other dark materials is as yet somewhat unwelcoming and it is too early to appraise properly its wild mixed arrays of flowering plants and grasses, or the effect of the steel-reinforcement rod 'trees', yet to be festooned with bougainvillea fronds.

Garden paths

What is certain is that Meier's greatest public space of earlier versions of the design - the stepped Italianate garden - has been temporarily lost. This great space, with its crucial colonnade (see axonometric p45) the subject of many beautiful wooden models from the Meier-Gruber model-shop - could even yet be constructed. It is worthy of reconsideration.

Robert Irwin makes one consistent point that his arrangement induces the visitor to turn, and look back at the most impressive upward view of Meier's building of the Getty Center from the central garden. But, it does this at the expense of the overall project and celebration that Meier had intended - the view of LA and the magnificence of the Pacific Ocean.

The generous abundance of architectural and programmatic subject matter of the Getty Center cannot be properly described in these notes. Nor, most importantly, can the splendid experience of the combined architecture, light and vistas.

The Getty Center is a triumph of architecture and an inspired, singular investment in both the arts and humanities, as well as research. It is unique.

1 The J. Paul Getty Museum: Handbook of the Collections. Los Angeles, 1997.

2 Ibid. 'J. Paul Getty and His Legacy', pp10 and 11.
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Title Annotation:organizations forming the project program of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, CA
Author:Richards, Ivor
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Feb 1, 1998
Previous Article:On the hilltop.
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