Shining City on a Hill

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

In an instant, civilization has arrived at our raw western landscape. Or so we might conclude from the growing hype that surrounds the Getty Center as its Dec. 16 opening date ticks closer. The most expensive art institution built in American history, housed in a $1-billion package, the center is expected to shake America’s cultural foundations, to forever shatter the distinction between East Coast refinement and West Coast ruggedness.

But from its regal perch atop a lush Brentwood hill, the Getty’s relationship to this city is not so clear. As a villa-like complex of massive travertine blocks and curving tan aluminum panels, it is undeniably aloof, with complex aspirations: As symbol, it marks the final arrival of high culture to Los Angeles; as Olympian monument, its goals are obviously more international than local.

And it is that sense of conflicting ambitions that makes the Getty like no other building in the world.


Since its conception 14 years ago, the Getty’s identity has seemed elusive. Is it a public museum or a scholarly retreat? Great civic monument or sterile corporate campus? Local cultural institution or powerful international force? The task set for the Getty’s architecture was no less than to sum up those apparent contradictions, to give them form and meaning.

Typically, the two most important decisions in that regard--program and site--were made without the architect. Early on, the Getty Center was envisioned as much more than a museum. It would include five other arms, including a conservancy that would restore architecturally important sites worldwide, a trust that doles out millions in grants yearly and a research institute that has since accumulated an enviable library collection of more than 800,000 volumes.

Harold M. Williams, who will step down in January as the Getty’s president, decided that all these functions must be concentrated in one place, to create a great enclave of collaboration. And it was Williams, in the fall of 1983, who announced that the site for the project would be on a hill overlooking the San Diego Freeway.

Two other sites had been seriously considered, both more woven into the city’s fabric, but neither as dramatic. One was at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Westwood. The other--more intriguing--was the Ambassador Hotel, closer to downtown. That site, 24 acres in what is now a largely Latino neighborhood, would have more directly affected the shape of the city and its communities.

Both the concentration of disparate functions and its location make the Getty unique as a contemporary urban monument. And they are particularly unusual choices for the museum, which will, of course, be the center’s most public space. The result is a hybrid of contemporary and old-fashioned values. The Getty’s skin is modern, but the notion of a museum on a hill is not.

During this century, the impulse has been to make museums more democratic and ever more accessible to a growing arts public. The grand stairs of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art--a beaux-arts monument built soon after the turn of the century--loom over pedestrians strolling down busy Fifth Avenue. Decades later, that lofty relationship between man and art did not seem explicit enough. In 1939, the Museum of Modern Art created a building with a storefront entry to whisk the common man right in, as if he were shopping for shoes. Across the East River, the Brooklyn Museum of Art went further, tearing out its stairs to make the link between art and public less “intimidating”--and decidedly less grand.


The Getty Center hopes to put art back on its pedestal. And to a degree, the gesture goes against our modern grain: It is as if the institution is bracing the world against the slow slide into pop culture. At the Getty, the feeling is that you are entering the great temple to high art. Visitors will have to make parking reservations, then ride the famous computerized tram to the top. This is no Tomorrowland monorail. Pulled along by a giant cable system, the tram moves at a snail’s pace. Only as you disembark are you finally confronted with the temple itself: a vast travertine plaza and its own set of stone stairs.

The museum sits at the center, with the Getty Center’s five other main structures extending loosely from its flanks, partially enclosing the plaza. There is a slight shift in the plan so as to echo the city’s layout: The museum lines up with the L.A. grid, while the trust and conservancy buildings are on axis with the freeway rushing by below. The sweep of the city unfolds like a vast map. And that only heightens the sense of pilgrimage, as if you have left behind the world of everyday pettiness and struggles.


To sense how unusual that is today, consider the cultural monuments that were former French President Franois Mitterrand’s great legacy to Paris during the 1980s, some of which equal the Getty in both ambition and media hype. The most famous, I.M. Pei’s continuing renovation of the Louvre, at a cost of $1 billion, is a relatively straightforward--not to say simple--challenge. The intent was to create more space and a new entry for a massive cultural dinosaur. Its deeper importance was in the symbolic shift it represented: The willingness of France to tamper with its lofty cultural past and Mitterrand’s desire to prove that French culture could still lead. Pei’s pyramid turned France’s oldest cultural landmark into a model of modernity.

For Richard Meier, the Getty’s architect, the task was to build a cultural landmark from scratch. Because of the various programs he had to accommodate, the relations were internal. Whereas Pei was designing a compact architectural statement--like Frank Gehry at his Guggenheim Museum building in Bilbao, Spain--Meier was developing a self-contained campus, an idealized world of thought far from the everyday. As such, the relationships between the buildings would define the architecture: how they framed the views, how they shaped the public space between them.

Yet the French also saw their cultural institutions as integral to the city’s shape. The recently completed Bibliotheque Nationale de France, for example, had dual ambitions: to become the most modern library in the world and to anchor a new community in what was a decrepit section on the city’s eastern edge.

In the design, the Paris library is raised on a giant plinth, with L-shaped glass towers framing the four corners of an immense plaza and sunken garden. The plaza--and by extension, culture--is meant to function as the heart of this new residential quarter. In L.A., some have argued that the Getty Center could have played a similar role had a different site been selected.


Meier’s choices, of course, were limited to architecture. He could have taken a more critical approach: to play up the inherent conflicts in those basic decisions or to make manifest the Getty’s global corporatism. Such was the role that, say, Rem Koolhaas chose last spring in his proposal for the redesign of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But Meier supported the Getty’s goal of creating a vast intellectual campus that melded varying degrees of public and private institutions. He chose the role of the optimist.

Meier is a Modernist, but he looked to classical models for inspiration: Italian hill towns, Hadrian’s imperial Villa. Yet one could just as easily evoke as precedent the United Nations, another project with ambivalent relation to the city around it. The U.N. was conceived as a “world city,” and the Getty, too, sees itself as a pivotal force in a global culture. The United Nations’ Modernist architecture--the clean abstraction of its glass, steel and concrete forms--was meant as a sign of a new international order.

But we don’t view Modernism the same way 50 years later. If Wallace Harrison and the team of architects who designed the United Nations can be seen as upholding the tail end of Modernism’s utopian bent, the architecture no longer carries that polemical baggage. Architecture as revolution is dead. Modernism has essentially become a conservative language, the language of a clean, corporate world.

Meier was at the center of that shift. His career has been spent refining the Modernist aesthetic, stripping it of political or social agenda. As such, few architects could have better expressed that ambiguity between modern and old values. The Getty design is essentially an aesthetic exercise. It is about a delicate play of light, about careful spacing of forms.

Even so, the Getty hedged its bets: It watered down Meier’s aesthetic refinement, much to his dismay. Due to fears of glare in its neighbors’ living rooms, most of Meier’s trademark white enameled aluminum panels are instead a pale tan. And in the museum itself, galleries have been covered with period-style wallpaper.

That also seems to perfectly suit the Getty Center’s ambiguous image. More than anything, it does not want to frighten. Meier’s architecture is the architecture of a certain kind of power: no longer utopian in its aspirations, but just as global in its reach.