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The Big Rock Candy Mountain

Building the Getty

by Richard Meier
Knopf, 204 pp., $35.00

The J. Paul Getty Museum and Its Collections: A Museum for the New Century

by John Walsh, by Deborah Gribbon
J. Paul Getty Museum, 288 pp., $40.00 (paper)

Making Architecture: The Getty Center

by Harold M. Williams, by Ada Louise Huxtable, by Stephen D. Rountree, by Richard Meier
J. Paul Getty Trust, 176 pp., $50.00

1.

Flying into LAX, you don’t bother to look for landmarks. The could-be-anywhere cluster of mirror-glass and postmodern-wallpaper towers in old downtown Los Angeles is not worth a first glance. The fine print of the Hollywood sign is often occluded by the yellowish lid of inert gases that hovers over the auto-emissions capital of the United States. The vast net of the sprawling city’s streets presents a sight of hypnotic power only when that grid is lit up in the dark.

Now, however, there is something new to watch for on the L.A. horizon. You wonder whether it can be seen from the sky, and it can. The creamy, gleaming Getty Center stands out against the sere brown Santa Monica Mountains with all the impressive mass of a geological formation. In view of the kilotons of earth moved in its making and the stone used for its cladding, this architectural prodigy is indeed a man-made mountain.

As you head northwest on the San Diego Freeway from the airport to Brentwood, the Getty Center, perched high atop a distant hill, drifts in and out of sight. It brings to mind a latter-day Shangri-La—a flat-roofed, vaguely Streamline Moderne eyrie like the lamasery in the 1937 movie Lost Horizon. Just beyond the Sunset Boulevard overpass, the Getty at last heaves into full view on the steep promontory to the west of the roadway. Now you think of the Great Wall of China. The sheer cliff of buff-colored masonry looms over slopes planted with gnarled western oaks in serried ranks. Meant to signify architectural subjugation of this rugged terrain, that formal landscape effect is far too tame; it makes the Getty site look for a moment like a very fancy vineyard.

Exiting the freeway at Getty Center Drive, you switch back south on a local street, cross under the big road, and enter the Getty domain. The first order of business is for a guard to determine whether you belong there at all. Parking reservations must be made well in advance, because although there are 700 spaces for employees’ cars, there are only 850 for the general public. Unusual for L.A., the Getty has no valet parking, as the requirement to book ahead, restaurant-style, might lead one to expect. You can, however, arrive unannounced if you are willing to walk or rollerblade at least a few miles or if you come on a bike or motorcycle, take a taxi (a $10 fare from the nearest nexus of big hotels, in Beverly Hills), or ride what is known in some West Side L.A. circles as “the maids’ bus,” the public transportation line that runs along Sunset and is frequently used by the domestic help of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, and Brentwood.

After being vetted by the Getty maître d’, you leave your car in the seven-level parking structure at the bottom of the hill, take an elevator up to the roof, and there board a small white airport-style tram that climbs three quarters of a mile up a curving, slightly raised track to the summit. Expectations run high, not only because this is one of the most complicated sequences by which a visitor arrives at any public building in America—getting into the White House is a breeze by comparison—but also because most people must plan for the experience with considerable forethought. You cannot walk into the Getty as impulsively as you might enter the National Gallery or British Museum in London, or the Frick or Metropolitan in New York. Tourists at the Getty might be reminded of the ascent to Hearst Castle, the megalomaniac publisher’s mountaintop estate several hundred miles to the northwest, though the Getty lacks free-range zebras.

But when the tram comes to a halt and you emerge at the long-awaited destination, hopes of mystery and magic fade away in the blazing sunlight. The first, punishing impression is one of blinding glare. The highly reflective surfaces of the broad entry plaza (paved in pale stone) and the six medium-rise, late-modern buildings that surround it (sheathed in a veneer of rough-cleft Roman travertine blocks, enameled-aluminum paneling, and vast expanses of glass) run the coloristic gamut from white to off-white to beige. Even when the sun is only halfway to its zenith, dark glasses become necessary equipment. The initial irony of this shrine to the visual arts is that after the exhausting act of getting there, you cannot see it without squinting.

The Getty Center is a multi-use complex made up of the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Conservation Institute, the Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, the Education Institute for the Arts, the Information Institute, and the Getty Grant Program, as well as offices for the Getty Trust, an auditorium, a restaurant pavilion, and a stone-ramparted helicopter landing pad. All of it was designed by Richard Meier, the New York architect whose successful thirty-five-year career has been built on his expertly handled variations on Purist themes first set forth by Le Corbusier seventy-five years ago. To those familiar with Meier’s sleek and self-assured style—modern academicism of a high order—the Getty scheme is a veritable compendium of all his major conceptions and minor motifs, an abridged version of his complete works.

We can see phantom reflections of Meier’s High Museum of Art of 1980-1983 in Atlanta both in the Getty Museum’s entry hall rotunda and in the circular exterior of the Research Institute, where visiting scholars will be working. The architect’s Atheneum of 1975-1979 in New Harmony, Indiana, is evoked in the piano-curve façades of several of the Getty structures, as well as in the miles and miles of white pipe-rail banisters that outline the many external stair towers throughout the complex. Corbusier was entranced by the utilitarian forms of ocean liner superstructures, and his nautical references sail on into history at Meier’s Getty.

There is no disgrace in recycling artistic ideas—whether one’s own or others’—and Meier has always aligned himself with the Mainstream Modern Master strategy of developing a successful formula and then sticking with it. That seemed to have worked best for him during the stylistic flailings of the postmodern moment of the 1980s, when his architecture took on an imperturbable quality that could pass for enduring value at a time of faddish change.

Indeed, none of his self-borrowings would matter much if the sum of the Getty Center’s very many parts added up to a satisfying whole. Although modern architecture dispensed with classical notions of harmony, even the most idiosyncratic building in the modern style can have an internal coherence. But the Getty does not. Nowhere on Meier’s more-or-less level 110-acre campus (the only buildable portion of the hilly 742-acre spread) is there a vista of calm and repose, except when one looks past the frenetically overdesigned buildings—with their restless forms and mixture of stone, metal, and glass—and out toward the dazzling views of the Pacific Ocean, the mountains, and the city that stretch in different directions. This, of course, will be perfectly all right with many visitors, who will come, ride the tram, take in the panoramas, grab a cappuccino, and leave without bothering to explore or even enter the museum, as often happens at the Pompidou Center in Paris.

The Getty Center has already been likened to many things: an acropolis, a Crusader castle, and, less flatteringly, a corporate headquarters, a medical center, or, as one L.A. architect put it, “a stack of Deco refrigerator doors.” The point shared by those diverse characterizations is that in some essential way the Getty does not look like what it is—a repository of art, where the treasures of the few can be shared by many. Though there is no current consensus on museum architecture, the tenor of this criticism-by-epithet suggests that for many the Getty simply does not work as an image for the values its officials say they want to promote.

The Getty’s aloof remove from the city that lies at its feet was not the responsibility of the architect. The $25-million site—spectacular, prestigious, and wholly unsuitable for easy public access—was decided upon by the Getty Trust before Meier was chosen. In The J. Paul Getty Museum and Its Collections, one of sev-eral celebratory publications marking the official opening on December 16, the museum’s director, John Walsh, and Deborah Gribbon, its associate director and chief curator, write that the location was intended to bring the institution, previously housed at J. Paul Getty’s hillside Malibu estate, “closer to the population of the city” and attract “a broadened audience.” The new Getty is indeed relatively nearer to more people than the Malibu site, and it is flanked by one of the most heavily traveled roads in California. But it is doubtful that many communities in the multiethnic city will see the museum as welcoming or its architecture as inviting, even with the intense “outreach” campaign it has been conducting in the weeks before the opening.

Among the members of the committee who selected the three finalists in 1984 (the ultimate choice was made by Getty officials) was Ada Louise Huxtable, former architecture critic of The New York Times and a longtime juror of the Pritzker Prize for Architecture, which Meier won several months before he was given the Getty commission. In an essay for Making Architecture: The Getty Center, the second volume of the official account of the project, Mrs. Huxtable shifts roles from critic to advocate as she rather defensively writes:

…There is no culture that has not placed its best buildings high, that has not directed its ambitions to the sky. The Center’s critics—they come with the territory and are present from the start—see only a monument at a time when monuments are out of favor; the wall visible from the freeway below is “exclusionary,” the elegance of the architecture “elitist,” and the Getty agenda of education, conservation, research, and scholarship in the arts “paternalistic.” The politically correct clichés of the moment come easily and will probably die hard. For many, however, this kind of building, in [the critic Colin] Davies’s astute definition, represents “a vigorous commitment to a program or principle” carried out in “top-drawer architecture.”

In addition to the historical misconception that all cultures have equated lofty purposes with elevated sites, Mrs. Huxtable’s belief that monuments are currently out of favor is also unpersuasive, especially in view of the very conspicuous one just opened in Spain only two months before the Getty. Much of the praise of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has to do with how imaginatively he has recast the notion of architectural monumentality in ways the Getty and its advisers never dreamed of when they chose Meier.

Now that the Guggenheim Bilbao is seen by many critics as a masterwork of late-twentieth-century architecture, it is instructive to recall that designing the Getty Center was once widely regarded as the dream commission of our time. But the Big Rock Candy Mountain that was to sustain a career for years and guarantee lasting fame and fortune turned out to be, as Meier himself describes it, an endless bureaucratic boondoggle.

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