Getty at 10: Still aloof, yet totally L.A.

Times Staff Writer

During much of the 1990s, as the Getty Center was rising on its Brentwood hilltop, a couple of stubborn questions dogged the hugely ambitious project: Would Richard Meier’s design ever have anything meaningful to do with, or say about, the city over which it loomed? Or would it exist as an expensive import, a vast collection of smooth enamel and rough travertine conjured up by a New York architect who looked west for commissions but east, to Europe and its Modernist past, for inspiration?

This weekend, as the $1.2-billion complex celebrates its 10th anniversary, those questions seem as relevant as ever.

In part that’s because the answers keep changing. When Meier’s design proposal was unveiled, the Getty was widely seen as an anomaly in Los Angeles, an effort to lend instant, old-fashioned respectability to an institution that craved it. Then, after it opened Dec. 16, 1997, the Getty surprised us by fitting in. And in the last couple of years it has begun to look like an anomaly all over again, though for a fresh set of reasons.


Looking back at the museum’s changing reputation offers more than the chance to see how the relationships between a city and its most significant landmarks change over time. It also helps explain the various shifts -- many of them profound -- that have redefined the field of architecture, and the city of Los Angeles, over the last 10 years.

Architecture’s leading figures have become global brand names, courted by commercial, governmental and cultural clients alike. L.A., for its part, has grown more vertical and noticeably denser -- and less white by the day. It takes most of its external cultural cues these days not from Europe or New York but from Latin America and Asia.

That’s not to say we have given up entirely on the idea that some Old World glamour can save or redeem us. The biggest local museum commission since the Getty, the expansion and reconfiguration of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, went to Renzo Piano, 70, a talented and genteel architect who splits his time between Paris and Genoa, Italy. But the next music director of the L.A. Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, is a 26-year-old from Venezuela. The new dean of the architecture department at USC is Qingyun Ma, a Shanghai architect who just turned 42. His counterpart at UCLA, 45-year-old Hitoshi Abe, arrived here in April from Sendai, Japan.

Though the Getty was a force for architectural and civic change, both as a model to follow and to react against, it was far from the only one. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, among the most catalytic designs in architectural history, also opened in the fall of 1997 -- a triumph that helped get Gehry’s stalled Walt Disney Concert Hall back on the track to completion.

Still, there is no question that the Getty Center permanently altered the way we think about new high-profile buildings here. The thumbnail version of its influence goes like this: The ways in which the complex successfully took advantage of L.A.’s climate, landscape and culture are worth copying; the ways in which it remained separate from the city, physically and symbolically, or tried to impose an inflexible approach to architecture better suited to Manhattan or Bauhaus-era Germany are worth avoiding.

Ultimately, however, exploring the question of the Getty’s connection to Los Angeles raises another: In a global city as wildly diverse and prone to amnesia as this one, how do we define what fidelity to local context, to the spirit of a place, even means?


A curious choice

In 1984, Harold M. Williams, president of the Getty Trust, announced that the architect for its ambitious new headquarters, on 110 acres just west of the San Diego Freeway, would be Richard Meier, then 49. The choice was curious: To design a museum on a site detached and aloof from the quickly changing city below it, the Getty picked an architect whose work -- and whole professional persona, for that matter -- was often detached and aloof as well.

By sticking to an orthodox version of Modernism in an era of Disneyland eclecticism, Meier, throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, had at least won points for consistency and rigor. But his chiseled designs, seemingly allergic to color and humor in equal measure, appeared to exist in a vacuum, without any of the sense of social mission that had driven the European architects who inspired him. The purest examples of his work were exercises less in Modernism than in antisepticism.

A funny thing happened, though, after the complex opened: It seemed more relaxed and more comfortable in its spectacular setting than we might have guessed. Maybe it was all that travertine, which softened the edges of the architect’s machine-like style. Maybe it was the way the center itself sprawled across its huge site. Or maybe Los Angeles culture seeped into the design because Meier -- and Michael Palladino, the architect who relocated here from New York in 1986 to run the project for Meier and never left -- spent so much time in the city as the project moved through more than a decade of gestation.

People got used to the idea, so alien at first, of leaving their cars at the bottom of the hill and taking a sleek tram to the museum at the top. Even Thierry Despont’s galleries, lined with fabric panels in rich colors, didn’t seem so fussy or aggressively handsome after a while.

The way Meier chose to break up the design, distributing more than 900,000 square feet of interior space among six separate buildings, some holding art and others a library and the Getty’s various research arms, did reinforce the idea of the museum as campus -- corporate or collegiate, take your pick -- and as a rather sterile, self-contained world floating above the city. But it had the practical effect of creating a whole series of plazas between and around those distinct blocks of space, nearly every one providing a spot for a bench or a fountain or a remarkable view.

And if the central courtyard, with its 120-foot-long fountain edged by Mexican cypress trees, seemed like a quad -- a nostalgic reference not just to classical architecture but also to the idea of being sequestered in a safe, self-contained place of higher learning -- well, most of us enjoyed it all the more for that.

The design seemed reflective of Los Angeles architecture in another, almost paradoxical way. If the whole idea of L.A. art and architecture was to ignore the idea of fitting in, to reject slavish conformism, then wasn’t the Getty a supreme example of precisely that attitude? Turning its back on the notion that it needed to match the spirit of Los Angeles in some prescribed way -- didn’t that make it somehow truer to the city than a row of palm trees or a red-tile roof?

Perhaps more to the point, the Getty joined a long line of L.A. landmarks that sit at a dramatic remove from the city around them -- most notably Griffith Observatory and Dodger Stadium and houses by John Lautner, Pierre Koenig, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, and many others.

Different mission

In recent years, the role the Getty Center plays in the city’s imagination has shifted once more. It hardly ranks as L.A.’s final stand-alone icon: Gehry’s Disney Hall, which opened in 2003, and Thom Mayne’s 2004 Caltrans building -- to pick two examples downtown -- proudly continued that tradition.

But in the last three or four years, we have embarked on a kind of high-profile architecture here that requires very different skills from those Meier displayed at the Getty. Instead of building new landmarks from scratch, architects are being asked to extend, restore or otherwise re-imagine existing ones.

The list of such designs includes recent expansions of the Getty Villa (2005) and Griffith Observatory (2006), along with plans for a third building by Cesar Pelli at the Pacific Design Center and Gehry’s work on the mixed-use project soon to rise across from Disney Hall. Call it infill with an L.A. twist.

Few L.A. architects have the luxury now of dropping a prominent building onto a wide-open plot of land, let alone a billion-dollar collection of buildings onto a virgin hilltop. And as those changes accelerate, the magisterial and isolated Getty, created whole, begins to appear anomalous all over again.

Of course, this tension between standing apart from the city and in the midst of it, between indigenous and imported culture, has always been a defining feature -- maybe the defining feature -- of L.A. culture. Reviewing “The Long Embrace,” Judith Freedman’s new book about Raymond Chandler, in the New York Review of Books, Pico Iyer notes that Chandler, who was brought up in England and moved here in his mid-20s, “got hold of L.A. partly by always remaining at a distance from it.”

“The sound that Chandler made his own was a mix of incantatory lyrical poetry and the rude vernacular of people who mocked all that such poetry traditionally described,” Iyer writes.

The way the Getty has settled into the Los Angeles landscape over the last decade is a product of the same dynamic. The best sense of where the city stands, 10 years on, is to be found not just in the detached, Olympian architecture of the Getty itself or in the restless, organic local culture it seems to oppose, but in the relationship -- thoroughly intertwined by now -- between the two.



Hawthorne is The Times’ architecture critic.