A Gardener’s Getty

Times Garden Editor

There are treasures without, as well as within, the glistening new Getty Center.

For gardeners and garden lovers, the center is a terraced marvel, full of fascinating plants used in provocative ways.

From some gardens, you can look down into others to discover a palm canyon or a geometric planting of cactus and succulents. From others, you can look up to see bougainvilleas or jasmine cascading from a garden above.

There are choice specimen trees--some quite rare--and clever, playful fountains, streams and waterfalls.


Particularly handsome and appropriate plants grow throughout the landscape design.

There are grand avenues and groves of trees, like camphors and California peppers, tabebuias and palo verdes, and shady bosques where visitors can quietly sip a

cappuccino under London plane trees or dine under native oaks that look as if they’ve been growing here for years.

At the center of it all is artist Robert Irwin’s sculptural Central Garden, half artwork, half garden, full of visual treats, like the maze-like azalea hedge that seems to float on a quiet pool.

Irwin’s hedge, his steel-lined paths and the amazing, conical trellises for bougainvilleas take full advantage of garden conventions, but in a way that casts them in a very different light.

Those who fondly remember the estate-like gardens at the Getty Museum at the Malibu villa will find the new center’s landscape quite different--sunnier, more expansive and much more graphic.

The center thinks of itself as a campus and, like any proper university grounds, the landscaping--which makes up about three-quarters of the 24-acre building site and is surrounded by 600 acres of native plantings and managed chaparral--is a mix of big, open spaces and peaceful corners.


Most visitors will come to see the new J. Paul Getty Museum, but it is only one part of this complex of buildings and gardens. The Research Institute, the Conservation Institute, the Information Institute, the Education Institute with its 450-seat auditorium and the Grant Program make up the other parts.

Some of the individual gardens are public and some are not, but most can be seen, if not visited, thanks to the hillside location.

A striking example can be found near the auditorium, between linear beds of clipped Spanish lavender and jasmine and beside a gnarled old Erythrina bidwillii. There a dark canyon between buildings cannot be visited but can be looked down upon.

According to landscape architect Laurie Olin, for this secluded spot “we wanted plants that looked good from above.” Inspired by a trip to the nearby Robinson Gardens’ palm grove, he choose spindly kentia palms and tree ferns for this little sliver of a garden. Their fronds look splendid from above.

The hilltop site also makes for some very spectacular views, perhaps the best in Southern California, and many of the little terraces take full advantage of this fact.

One terrace off the upper floors of the museum offers a dizzying view of downtown Los Angeles, so the bed there is a mass planting of the city flower, the bird of paradise.


Creeping around the bird of paradise is common mint, the same kind you put in iced tea. Its crinkly, small leaves make a surprising foil for the large, glossy leaves of bird of paradise, and it’s a plant combination most gardeners would not think likely.

The Brentwood hilltop where the Getty perches was extensively graded and rearranged to accommodate the facility, and to prevent erosion, it was re-vegetated early on, a process begun by one of Southern California’s premier landscape architects, Emmet Wemple.

After Wemple’s death in 1996, Olin, of Olin Partnership in Philadelphia, took over design of the gardens, avenues and plazas around the buildings.

Trying to unify all these facilities and still give each its own character was no small trick, according to Curt Williams, director of construction and facilities.

“But we made it an interactive process,” he said, in which each of the institutes or programs--the users--worked with the designers to help shape its own space.

For instance, Research Institute staff members wanted fruit trees near their cafeteria, so a small citrus grove and several gnarled fig trees were planted in a secluded garden, which, unfortunately, is not open to the public.


The center’s many little gardens are linked and unified by the use of stone. The bubbly, effervescent Italian travertine used on the buildings is also used for paving, benches and even cobblestones in the gardens.

The center sections of the rough, split blocks used on the exterior of the buildings became the smooth paving stones that tie the landscape together.

Exceptionally large blocks were made into benches, and the tiniest blocks became cobblestones beneath the avenues of trees, where fragrant Corsican mint creeps through the gaps between stones.

This unusual stone was formed by seeping mineral springs. Look closely and you can find fossil leaf impressions in some. Those containing fossils were carefully placed here and there at eye level on the buildings or at your feet. (There’s a great collection on the back side of the east wall of the South Promontory.)

A Hillside Ecology

The hilltop site of the center inspired both the layout of buildings and the landscape, according to the landscape architect. Working at first with a room-sized model of the complex, complete with its canyons and hilltops, Olin let the site “help us make decisions.”

Echoing a familiar grievance of Southland designers, he saw that in Southern California “you can simply grow too much, just about anything,” so to make the groupings of plants logical and cohesive, he turned to the site for inspiration.


Although there are tropical bougainvilleas and palms and dry-country lavender and rosemary, they do not grow together. Each has its place on the hill.

One type of plant grows on the cooler north side, and the hot south sides gets another. You’ll find oaks, native sycamores and other similar trees growing on the shadowy northern exposure--as they often do in the wild--while a garden of sun-loving cactus and succulents decorates the southern-most promontory.

At the lower, cooler elevations, he used plants with cool colors, with blue and lavender flowers or gray foliage. These change to hotter colors at the higher elevations--oranges, corals and the hot pinks of bougainvilleas.

Because there are so many elevations and exposures, they found places for more than 500 kinds of plants on the hill.

Bottom to Top

You enter the center by driving through a grove of native sycamores, just as you did at the Getty villa in Malibu, though the big sycamores at the center were planted just a few weeks ago.

Elevators take you from the mostly subterranean parking structure up to the tram level, which is surrounded by a lush canyon-bottom garden of jacarandas, peppers, crape myrtles and a formal hedge of sweet-smelling Myrtus communis. There’s even a picnic area for those who bring box lunches, under a lavender-painted arbor covered with white wisteria.


The crape myrtle trees were also planted to make what Richard Naranjo, manager of grounds and gardens, calls an “aerial hedge.” It will take a few years to see how this is going to turn out, but the idea is to trim these already tall trees into a rectangular hedge in the sky. There are several other aerial-hedges-to-be on the grounds.

This lowest level is nearly the only place where you’ll find a large lawn in this distinctly Mediterranean landscape, a welcome departure from many other public spaces that often lack that California flavor, having too much lawn and too few other plants.

Another good-sized lawn area, seen on the trip up the hill, is actually a landing pad for firefighting helicopters so they can reload water from a million-gallon tank buried underneath.

The perimeter plantings take into account the fact that the center sits in the middle of very flammable brush. The ride up takes you by the young coast live oaks that make up the grid and the under-planting of the native fire-resistant Iva hayesiana. Its common name is, ironically, poverty weed, and there are 180,000 of them planted on the center grounds.

Just thinking about that many plants ought to give gardeners sore knees, but the Getty Center is one of the biggest landscaping projects in modern times. Its costs have not been broken out within the $1-billion cost of the Getty Center, a spokeswoman said.

Naranjo says there are some 10,000 native coast live oaks planted on the site, though eventually some will be removed as they grow and make a solid canopy. Oaks are known to slow or even stop fires. When gardeners were planting the oak grid, they used nearly every nursery-grown oak tree in California.


This citrus grove-like grid was the idea of Getty Center architect Richard Meier. He saw it as a bridge between the wild chaparral and the landscaping of the center grounds, and in places it imitates the street grid of Los Angeles below.

Still Growing

On the tram ride up to the hill, you’ll also see young Italian stone pines that will some day be a remarkable avenue of broad-topped trees. The pines wind their way up the hill, where they creep between buildings, ending as a cluster of more mature stone pines in the center of the arrival court.

One of the reasons the gardens look as mature as they do is that the plants were started quite a few years ago or they were tagged at nurseries and saved for the Getty.

The pines were sown about five years ago, according to Mike Poteet of Valley Crest Tree Co., so the staff of the Getty could get a head start maintaining them. They wanted to start pruning them at an early age so that, at planting time, they would make a uniform avenue of trees.

After you get off the tram at the arrival court, the way to the museum is clear. Simply follow the torrent of water cascading down beside the steps. They lead up to the museum’s entrance.

The terraced planting beds next to the steps are stunning and refreshingly Mediterranean in their choice of plant material. Gnarled Leptospermum laevigatum, trailing rosemary, ceanothus and other dry-climate plants cascade down the beds, “evoking water,” as Olin put it.


At the top of the steps is another grand stand of native sycamores, right outside the museum’s soaring steel entrance.

The museum, with its five gallery-pavilions, surrounds the largest of the courtyards, and nearly running its length is an Alhambra-like linear fountain, inspired by the old Spanish alamedas, or irrigation ditches. It’s bordered by an avenue of rare Montezuma cypress, Taxodium mucronatum.

The cypresses, found in a Texas nursery after a long search, were brought in nearly full size, as were all the other trees near the buildings, including the avenues and islands of sweetgum, Chinese elms, tabebuias, strawberry trees, koelreuterias, jacarandas and camphors.

Sometimes several cranes were needed: one to take trees off the truck and one to move them and, finally, one of the big 250-ton construction cranes to hoist them over the buildings and into place.

The large 80- to 100-year-old oaks just outside the restaurant, which is sure to become a favorite place to sit or eat, were dug and boxed up five years ago, even though they were replanted only recently.

They weigh more than 30,000 pounds each, according to Poteet, and are about 35 to 50 feet tall, and there are nearly 100 others like them planted in little gardens on the grounds.


Although it is not evident, nearly half of the Getty Center is underground, connected by a maze of tunnels, and most of the plantings are above structures.

According to Kelly Duke, project manager for Valley Crest Landscape, which did most of the landscaping, some lawn areas grow in only 18 inches of soil, though most of the on-structure beds are about 4 to 5 feet deep.

Water Everywhere

Follow the long fountain to its end and you will find several other small fountains and pools, strewn with marble-like boulders from the Sierra Nevada (that interesting patina came from a process called “water-blasting”).

In one of these clever fountains, water sprouts from underneath a boulder and travels down a narrow runnel beside California peppers, and then into a neat circular hole. It drops through to a grotto underneath, where it appears to become the source for the stream that charges though Irwin’s Central Garden.

The museum courtyard ends at a dramatic gap between buildings that looks out onto what is called the South Promontory, where the best view of Los Angeles competes with a stunning geometric garden of cactus and succulents--golden barrel cactus, variegated agaves and lavender-tinged opuntias with a ground cover of lilac rock.

The restaurant and cafe building to the west of the courtyard are wrapped by trellises covered with ‘Tahitian Dawn’ bougainvilleas and the uncommon white Japanese wisteria.


Here the native sycamores that marched up the north slope give way to a bosque of the closely related sycamore called the London plane tree, a variety named ‘Yarwood.’ They’ve been severely pruned in an old horticultural practice called pollarding.

Pollarded trees are cut back to the same spot every year, so in winter they are stubby, leafless outlines that let in lots of sun. In spring they sprout to become lush green canopies that provide shade all summer.

They’re probably the best example of what Olin described as the purposeful mix of classical and modern ideas.

“Pollarding,” he said, “is as old as the hills, going back to Roman times.” The steel trellis right next to it, which holds up the wisteria, is most modern.

The pollarded plane trees become less formal in shape as they head down the other side of the hill.

“We whacked them at the top of the hill near the buildings but let them become more and more natural as they head down to the stream and garden,” Olin said.


There they border a noisy stream that careens around blockish boulders in Irwin’s garden. The water ends in a torrential fall that leads into the quiet pool where a hedge of ‘Red Bird,’ ‘Pink Lace’ and ‘Duc de Rhon’ azaleas seems to float on the pool in a maze-like pattern.

Actually, they are in planters, and to make sure they were full enough to hide the planters’ edges on opening day, they were grown in identically shaped modules at the Getty villa for two years before being moved here.

Irwin’s Central Garden is the biggest of all the Getty gardens and the most fascinating, because familiar plants and practices are used in unfamiliar, new ways.

It’s also the youngest garden, and there is more planting to come. As will be the case with all the new Getty gardens, it will be fun to watch it grow to become another horticultural treasure for Southern California.


Visiting the New Getty Center

Location: The Getty Center is 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.