Realizing a Utopian Goal in Center That Doesn’t Cohere


In an age when art must struggle to engage the world, the new Getty Center’s mission is to reestablish the fractured bond between art and the public.

It is a utopian goal. And to accomplish it, the Getty Trust decided to divorce itself from the city it inhabits. The task for Richard Meier, as the Getty’s architect, was to make that vision believable, to create an idealistic sanctuary for scholars and museum-goers on a Brentwood hilltop, a monument to the resilience of high art cloaked in a modern skin.

At this, Meier’s Getty is a striking success. Yet Meier’s success is also an astonishing rejection of the course of 20th century architecture. Modern architecture’s sleek lines and industrial materials sprung from a fanatical faith in the promise of the future, and Meier has spent his life honing those forms to jewel-like perfection. Yet the Getty’s isolation, with its aura of noblesse oblige, evokes an earlier era. As such, when the 110-acre, $1-billion arts complex opens to the public Dec. 16, it will be a strange embodiment of pre-20th century values. The Getty, in the end, is an elegant modern package for 19th century ideals.


No site could have better suited the Getty’s ambitions. Its views of the city are glorious. Los Angeles’ sprawling megalopolis opens up before you like a vast unfolding map. Surrounded by a 600-acre preserve and located just north of Sunset Boulevard and west of the San Diego Freeway, the center is not so much woven into the landscape as perched on top of it. It is an internalized world meant to inspire contemplative journeys.

Like most journeys in Los Angeles, this one begins in a parking lot. Rather than allow visitors to drive to the top, cars are left in an underground structure at the bottom of the hill. From there, visitors ride a streamlined tram up a serpentine path with views of the Brentwood hills. At first, the ride seems unnervingly slow--three quarters of a mile in five minutes--but that slowness is intentional. The ride calms the nerves. Chaos, stress, anxiety all belong to the world below.

Only once the tram arrives at the top and the doors open is there a sense of the sprawl of the center itself. The tram arrives at a vast entry plaza, paved in travertine, an off-white limestone that, along with aluminum panels of a similar hue, is used throughout the complex.

A museum, five institutes and a grant program make up the Getty, but the center is loosely divided into two parts, with scholarly and public buildings dominating the site to the south and west, and the Conservation Institute, Education Institute and administrative wings anchoring the east and north, along with a public auditorium. A grand travertine stairway leads up to the museum, where an entry rotunda is hidden behind an undulating metal facade. To the west is the Research Institute, essentially a scholarly library in the form of a glimmering white drum whose southeast side is cleaved open to let light into a circular central court.

Beyond, artist Robert Irwin’s whimsical Central Garden rambles down the side of a 134,000-square-foot hillside. Museum, library and garden--the three major public components are conceived as a loosely knit group. Both the maze that is the focus of Irwin’s garden and the museum’s vast entry rotunda echo the Research Institute’s circular forms. Together they form a trinity that unites the public spaces with a wonderful subtlety.

But although these public areas are thoughtfully balanced, the complex as a whole does not cohere. The more private structures (aside from the auditorium) seem isolated on the wrong side of the trackless-tramway. A palm-lined garden, submerged three stories below plaza level--is the area’s central event. Around it, cloistered walkways and metal bridges connect the various buildings. Meier skewed placement of these buildings slightly to line them up with the freeway rambling by below. But the shift is imperceptible, and you never feel its weight. Instead, the buildings simply seem detached, their function hidden behind slick metal and glass facades.


Most of it is off-limits to the public anyway. And that raises the obvious question: Is the problem with Meier’s architecture or with the attempt to make coherent the identity of the Getty as a whole? Do these institutions belong together? Or should the Getty Trust have confined itself to being a public temple, with its museum, gardens and library a purely civic monument? The Getty may heroically fend off the cheery march of pop culture. Its architecture lays bare its own internal contradictions.

Most visitors, however, will ignore the buildings that don’t concern them and head straight for the museum. And there, Meier’s design is an undeniable success. Despite its use of travertine, with its overtones of antiquity, this is a Modernist building.

Meier broke apart the traditional museum in order to rethink the relation between art and the viewer. In the design, the museum is organized with an entrance hall and five distinct pavilions arranged around a central court. The beauty of the art is treated as part of a broader, abstract composition. Yet even so, the museum is tempered with surprising whimsy. In the court, trees sprout up in neat grids. Fountains gush. Buildings part to allow distant views of the city.

Visitors enter the museum through a rotunda that serves as orientation center. Meier is known for the crisp abstraction of his Modernist forms. Here, everything is calculated with the keen precision of a Swiss pocket watch. Light pours in from everywhere. A ring of pillars encloses the space, ceilings peel away--creating a tension between the light and the taut forms that is reminiscent of Italian Baroque church architecture.

From the rotunda, the organization of the museum is instantly apparent: A great sculptural stair sweeps up 25 feet along one side to the second-floor galleries. A giant curved-glass wall--which will slide open during warm weather--overlooks the courtyard, where low arcs of water cascade along the length of a long, narrow reflecting pool. Two options are discernible: On the upper level, the museum provides a cohesive, chronological path through the various pavilions. From the court, each pavilion functions as an independent museum. You choose.

Inside, by contrast, the museum’s galleries are subdued. Meier and Museum Director John Walsh took obsessive care in regulating the light; workers tinkered with the computerized skylight louvers for months. The results are phenomenal. The generous proportions of Meier’s galleries funnel the light down evenly over the walls, giving it a spiritual glow.


Meier and Walsh also argued over the interior decor. In the end, the Getty hired Thierry Despont to finish interiors of the galleries with luscious colored fabrics--soft browns and neutral colors for the paintings galleries, and bordello hues for the decorative arts rooms. Despont’s choices contrast sharply with the clean white of Meier’s architecture, but that is not all bad. Meier’s design serves as a perfect shell, a theatrical frame for the period pieces inside.

Meier’s greatest success comes in providing in-between spaces that allow the eye to wander, while still pulling the visitor along in an artistic reverie. Between each pavilion is a different surprise: views from glass-enclosed balconies of the fountain below, a large open-air terrace overlooking the sweep of the city, a more carefully framed view of an enclosed fountain. There are even occasional surprises in the lower galleries: a fragment of sky in the upper corner of a room. A rough-hewn travertine wall that cuts through the purity of a corridor.

Meier’s plan is shaped by the idea that art can overwhelm, that it must be taken in carefully monitored doses. In a world of fading attention spans, the architecture becomes a lure, like the flickering frames of a film reel. Contemplate a Poussin. Then drift away with the image locked away in your mind. That balance--between the exquisite simplicity of the galleries and the powerful views of the city--creates a sort of collective solitude.

Meier’s work has often been compared to that of Le Corbusier, the father of Modernism who died in 1965. Like Le Corbusier, Meier celebrates the spiritual powers of light. But Le Corbusier’s utopianism sprung from faith in the machine as savior. He believed that architecture could alter the social fabric. Today, that faith is dead. Meier’s utopia has no such social mission. It seeks instead to refine small corners of the world. As such, Meier’s creation at the Getty reflects the limits of our hopes: The Getty Center can be seen as a gated community for art, closely-guarded, albeit open to all.

One can’t help but wonder how much more that ideal will be corrupted once the masses of tourists and curiosity seekers are allowed to run amok. Will Meier’s world retain its aura of a lofty temple? Or will it become a place to loiter and catch some rays? Will glowing newlyweds sneak up to have their pictures taken overlooking the grand cityscape? The Getty may support an ideal of high art and elite scholarly thought, but reality may be something entirely different. It may yet be infected by the madness of the city below.

There were other possibilities. Consider what the idiosyncratic architect Frank O. Gehry was able to accomplish at his recently opened Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. There, the context was an industrial wasteland, not undulating hills. Gehry’s galleries pull apart to views of a steel bridge and a tough cityscape. It is a remarkable celebration of contemporary life, one that implies that it is still not impossible to engage art in an urban context.


Nonetheless, the Getty marks the beginning of a permanent shift in Los Angeles’ cultural landscape. It is only one of a group of civic and cultural monuments by major architects that could soon radically change the city’s architectural landscape, including Jose Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, both downtown. These three major projects reflect a city intent on building a civic fabric worthy of a great metropolis. Each is distinguished by its own cultural values, each expresses a different view of what the city could become.

The cliche of Los Angeles is a city of decay, a city where, as Raymond Chandler put it, the front door is the only part of a house you can’t kick through with a boot. The Getty is a finely honed alternative. It seeks to civilize the city’s sprawl, to hoist a banner to the Old World values of high art. In doing so, it marks a shift toward making Los Angeles a more traditional city.


Visiting the New Getty Center

Location: The Getty Center is located at 1200 Getty Center Drive in Brentwood.

Hours: Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Mondays and major holidays.

Cost: Admission to the museum is free; parking is $5.

Transportation: Parking reservations are required and can be made by calling (310) 440-7300 or, for the hearing impaired, (310) 440-7305. Information is in English and Spanish. Visitors without a reservation can come via bus, taxi or bicycle, but parking in nearby neighborhoods is severely restricted. MTA bus No. 561 and the Santa Monica Blue Bus No. 14 stop at the front entrance on Sepulveda Boulevard. Bicycle racks and a taxi stop with direct phone lines to cab companies are located in the parking garage.