A Classic Conflict

Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

Civic culture. Private life. These two themes have dominated urban planning debates in this country since the turn of the century. But for the J. Paul Getty Trust, the balance between local needs and public mission must seem like a recurring nightmare.

In a public presentation before a city of Los Angeles hearing examiner scheduled for Dec. 7, trust officials will unveil their latest program for the renovation and expansion of the famed villa complex of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Located in Pacific Palisades on the border of Malibu, the museum has come under attack from a faction of neighbors who see the new plan as a further invasion of their small, insular community. Too many cars. Too much noise. These complaints are familiar ones for the Getty. More than a decade ago, while planning the Getty Center in Brentwood, officials spent two years negotiating with local homeowners over such issues as building heights and paint colors.

There is little question that the villa project will transform what essentially was conceived as an elaborate, if eccentric, estate-like setting for viewing art into a true civic monument. The expansion and renovation will take place over three years, at a projected cost of $150 million. Nearly half the budget will go to the restoration of the villa, but the site will now become a more sophisticated cultural complex, one that will include a 600-seat Roman theater, a 300-seat restaurant, a bookstore, auditorium and upgraded facilities for conservation programs.

The conflict--which pits rich homeowners against a multibillion-dollar foundation--centers on the theater. Homeowners have imagined loud performances, throngs of reveling tourists, the roar of applause shaking them out of their late-night sleep. The hidden implication is that the Getty is seeking to create a vast cultural playground, a Roman-style Disneyland for the masses. That fear is rooted in suspicions over the Getty’s institutional arrogance. As one neighbor put it to me: “What struck me was the religious fervor they have about saving the country, about saving the world.”


Yet the Getty’s cultural ambitions have never been so straightforward. They have never been about popular culture, nor are they about a radical cultural mission. They are, instead, linked to notions of taste, of gentility, of the civic forum as a place of serene contemplation. Only a month ago, in fact, the Getty scuttled plans for a second multilevel parking structure on the site, in part because of local complaints, in part because the Getty hopes to control the flow of visitors through the museum. The theater, they claim, will be limited to a small number of classical performances a year. The current design, by the Boston-based architecture team of Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, is an example of the most genteel kind of historicism. It will clearly improve what is already one of the city’s most beloved cultural attractions, but it will do so with an eye toward decorum.

In effect, the villa is maturing from the idiosyncratic, deeply personal vision of a mega-millionaire secluded in England to a more complex cultural experience. It is a refined civic forum for the contemplation of high art set just across the Pacific Coast Highway from a hedonistic landscape of surfers, sunbathers and beaches. As such, it reflects a broader shift in the city’s cultural identity, an identity once characterized almost exclusively by eccentric monuments to personal wealth.


When the J. Paul Getty Museum opened in 1974, the city’s cultural sophisticates whispered about its gaudiness, its lack of taste. The structure--an ersatz reproduction of the 1st century Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum--was seen, as Joan Didion wrote, as “a perverse and deliberate affront to the understated good taste and general class of everyone at the table.”

J. Paul Getty didn’t care. With a quintessentially American faith in the permeability of class boundaries, he saw himself as an ally of the popular masses that flocked to see his new museum, and not of the cultural critics who felt uneasy with the building’s ostentatious forms. Hence, the original Getty Museum became emblematic of the Southern California ethos, a melding of high art and hedonism.

The selection of Machado and Silvetti for the villa’s renovation can be read as a correction of all that, part of a broader, sometimes self-conscious effort on the part of civic leaders to display a more sophisticated cultural image. Machado and Silvetti are nothing if not tasteful. Their architecture is one of refinement. They offer exquisite materials, elegant detailing, a delicate sense of history. The secret is that they are also sensitive urban planners. History and taste are only tools in their attempts to shape the urban drama. They see, rightly, that cities are made up of fragments of distorted, incomplete visions, and their design seeks to reflect that urban complexity.

The Roman theater is key to the site’s reconfiguration. The semicircular amphitheater form is carved into the hillside facing the museum’s existing northern facade, tying the building cozily into its site and embracing a new small plaza that will become the museum’s main entry. All of the project’s public functions converge here on two levels: The restaurant sits along a pathway that wraps around the top of the theater; the bookstore and auditorium are entered from the plaza below.

That sense of multiple urban meanings is heightened by the theater’s various overlapping functions. During the day, its sand-colored steps will function as a sort of reverse grand stairway, a place where visitors will converge to loiter, ogle each other, have lunch, meet a date. At night, those same steps become the more formal open-air theater, with the museum’s colonnaded entry as its backdrop. For any who have sat outside, say, to watch a movie in the heart of a city, it is one of the most intimate of urban feelings. The slight chill of night air, the enveloping darkness, the subtle tension between the friction of urban contact and the shared communal focus of a performance, all serve to create a particularly sensual urban event. The point here is that public life is the true performance.


What gives the theater its power as an urban device, however, is that it is also part of a larger, more complex procession leading to the museum. In the original villa, the main peristyle garden served as a forecourt for the museum, and the effect was to turn the garden into a big, unruly lobby. To take advantage of the unusual topography of the site--the villa sits in a narrow canyon with hills rising on both sides--Machado and Silvetti chose to move the museum’s main entry to the back of the building. Visitors will still arrive at the museum’s western end, as they did before the museum’s closing in 1997, but they will now enter first through a small open-air pavilion set off to the northwest corner of the garden. From there, they will climb the pavilion’s staircase up to a path that winds alongside the villa until they reach the top of the theater. (If this sounds exhausting, you can ride an elevator up to the path.)


The idea is to create a sense of surprise. The villa is offered as a sort of archeological relic. The path can be understood as a teaching tool. As you move along, views of the villa will disappear and reappear again through a dense landscape of sycamores and stone pines. Completing that sense of Arcadian splendor, a vast lemon grove will stretch out along the crest of the hill to the north.

That sense of journey extends seamlessly into the museum itself. By shifting the main entry along the building’s short axis, the architects have created a richer sequence of interior and exterior rooms. From the theater plaza, visitors will cross the colonnaded terrace into a small atrium lobby and out into the central courtyard garden. Opposite the atrium, a grand stairway leads up to the second-floor galleries, with the east garden visible just beyond, punctuated by a fountain. To the right is the main peristyle garden, which now becomes a quieter, more private sanctuary.


Throughout, the design has an almost relentless feel of elegance. The loud, brightly colored garden frescoes that now mark the building’s north facade, with its row of Corinthian columns, will be toned down, clad in Pompeian-style masonry. A row of oak-framed windows will overlook the courtyard from the second-floor galleries, their shutters flung open on clear days. And the architects are hoping to replace the severe, well-trimmed shrubbery of the peristyle garden with a looser, more Tuscan look. The image that comes to mind is of cherubic putti floating above a fountain, or of a Giorgio Armani photo shoot. But once the visitors arrive, that image of polished serenity will surely be replaced by a surlier one.

But the most critical details in the design have to do with how successfully those paths are connected. How do you keep the entry sequence surprising rather than monotonous? How do you maintain the sense of awakening? How far are you willing to climb? The answers lie in the subtleties of scale and distance. Because of a sudden dip in the landscape, for instance, a shallow valley will separate the parking structure from the entry pavilion. As the plan stands now, visitors will have to ride an additional elevator and then walk to the pavilion, before climbing (or taking an elevator up) another 48 feet to the hillside path. The architects are still struggling with these questions. The Getty has never liked cars. And this plan clearly seeks to leave car culture behind, to create a bucolic, pedestrian landscape. For it to work, the transition from one world to the other needs to be cautiously resolved.

All of this evokes recent experiences at the newer Getty Center in Brentwood. Both the Getty Center and the villa have been ridiculed as cousins of Disneyland. But the villa redesign is obviously a smaller, more manageable project. Unlike its bigger cousin, it will always retain its ersatz quality, one rooted in the idiosyncratic vision of a reclusive oil magnate. Yet the site will gain the complexity of a cultural village that has grown up over time, a monument that allows you to slip in and out of various experiences, various meanings. It does not pretend to engage the chaos of urban life. Nor does it deny its popular roots.

The Getty villa’s importance is also more local. It remains one of the few true civic spaces along the coast, outside of the beach. Think back to Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. and Harlan Bartholomew’s ambitious 1930 plan for a public park that would run from Santa Monica all the way up the Malibu coast, a plan that would have created one of the most awe-inspiring public parks in the nation. The Getty villa is, instead, a more solitary cultural enclave set high atop the Land of Sunshine. That is enough to maintain its surreal aura, however refined the aesthetic. As such, it seems destined to remain, once it reopens, one of the most potent symbols of Southern California culture.