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The Big Rock Candy Mountain

Meier’s tribulations are recorded in his fascinating memoir of the project, Building the Getty, a fitfully revealing document that is by turns a professional autobiography, an exercise in spin control, and postpartum score-settling. Though Meier comes across as a sore winner—and Getty officials must be mortified—the book does accurately portray the kinds of problems that even eminent architects face as a matter of course but that were in this case magnified by the scope of the project.


The Getty’s architectural selection process was not, strictly speaking, a competition, in that it did not require the thirty-three invited participants to present prospective schemes. Instead, candidates were interviewed to determine their attitudes toward the project, and their previous buildings were assessed (and, in the case of the seven semifinalists, visited by the committee). One reason for this more speculative approach was that the officials of the J. Paul Getty Trust, beneficiary of the oil tycoon’s $700-million bequest (which grew to $1.7 billion when Texaco bought Getty Oil in 1983), had little idea of what they wanted. The old Getty Museum, an approximate replica of the ancient Roman Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, completed in 1974 on the expatriate billionaire’s Malibu ranch, was a much-visited oddity but clearly inadequate for the leap into the international big leagues envisioned by Harold M. Williams, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission who was named in 1981 president and chief executive officer of the Getty Trust.

The broad spectrum of approaches the Getty considered ranged from the ascetic Minimalism of the Mexican master Luis Barragán and the flashy commercialism of the California firm Welton Becket to the postmodern Mannerism of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and the high-tech engineering of Sir Norman Foster. Also among the first group of thirty-three, but not the semifinalists, was the L.A.-based Frank Gehry, who by 1984 already had a strong following in avant-garde art and architecture circles, if not the international superstar status he now enjoys.

The more conservative members of the committee must have considered Gehry’s exuberantly unconventional aesthetic to be antithetical to the sympathetic display of the Getty’s traditional holdings—primarily Old Master paintings and Grande Epoque French decorative arts. (The Getty’s Greek and Roman antiquities, it was eventually decided, were to remain at the Malibu villa, which is being remodeled by the architects Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, and will reopen to the public in 2001.)

There are now good reasons to question why Meier was considered most suitable for the Getty job. For example, his contract with the Getty Trust stipulated that he not design one of his typical all-white schemes. Why, then, go to an architect who has done nothing but such work for decades? In the end, the exterior glare of the Getty Center as built is so strong that his slight modulation of tone, to off-white and beige, is of little consequence.

Even more pertinent is Meier’s sense of the relation between art and architecture. Unlike most other architects, Meier has long harbored aspirations to being a painter, sculptor, and collagist, occasionally exhibiting his works. Like many of his co-professionals, Meier apparently does not want works of art to give his buildings undue competition. In one of the most revealing passages in his book, he rails against the Getty’s decision to ask the artist Robert Irwin to design a garden for the Center. “What was most difficult for me in this whole affair,” he writes, “was that Irwin was being treated as an artist while I was being relegated to the secondary status of architect.”

Meier has always made much of his love for contemporary art—he has long been a friend of Frank Stella’s—but his feelings toward the traditional works in the Getty’s collection seem to have been quite another matter. In Building the Getty, Meier admits that when he went to Malibu to review the museum’s holdings, he found the collection to be “an eccentric and oddly disjunctive combination,” sentiments one can be certain he did not share with his potential employers.

During the 1980s, a decade of unprecedented museum-building activity, Meier began to specialize in that growing sector of practice. Before he received the Getty commission he had already been hired, between 1979 and 1982, to design the Frankfurt Museum of Decorative Arts, the High Museum in Atlanta, and an addition to the Des Moines Art Center. Those projects gave him the specific experience that clients want to be assured of before awarding a major project, the circular thinking being that only someone who has already designed a museum is qualified to design a museum.

In fact, Meier’s first two museums do not serve either paintings or the decorative arts very well. The picture galleries of the High Museum are treated as subsidiary spaces shunted off from the proportionally dominant, glass-paneled entry rotunda, which is flooded with daylight and unusable for the display of works that require careful conservation.

The Frankfurt Museum of Decorative Arts is a handsome building, which takes its cues from the riverside Biedermeier villa next to it, and it is well-integrated into an overall scheme for a group of small museums. But in Meier’s gleaming white galleries, the museum’s collection of traditional German furniture and household objects (walnut wardrobes, stoneware jugs, and the like) is diminished by the perfectionist, clinical setting, and looks dingy. It is quite likely that the alarming effect of this installation prompted the Getty Museum staff to push for the appointment of a traditional interior design specialist to prevent a similar outcome in Los Angeles.

Accordingly, in 1989 the eclectic, French-born, architecturally trained decorator Thierry Despont was hired to design the Getty Museum’s decorative arts galleries, which have a particularly fine collection of French furniture, and he subsequently moved on to choosing the background materials and colors for the picture and sculpture galleries as well. Meier was understandably angry, and indeed this misalliance was not unlike what might have occurred in the 1960s if the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth had brought in Stéphane Boudin, that period’s master of the French grand manner, to decorate the architecture of Louis Kahn. Despont does not have Boudin’s talents, and his rooms devoted to eighteenth-century interiors at the Getty are objectionable not only because they seem bizarrely at odds with Meier’s architectural setting but also because of their inherent vulgarity.

Despont’s hand, however, is not unwelcome in the picture galleries, where subtle background colors—ranging from light gray-green to rich brown—of fabric and paint generally show off the paintings to good advantage. Most successful of all are the tinted plaster finishes of the sculpture galleries. To cite once more the precedent of the Kimbell—the Getty’s closest analogue in its combination of a building by a major contemporary architect and an important collection of traditional artworks acquired in recent decades—there is no reason why Old Master art cannot be shown against walls that do not attempt to mimic those of European palaces.

And though Meier’s talents are not of the same order as Kahn’s, the painting and sculpture galleries work well for visitors in their layout and lighting, and in the way they are set up in a series of pavilions to allow frequent breaks from the long room-after-room march typical of many other museums. Some of the rooms are strangely proportioned—one vertiginous, 45-foot-high sculpture gallery dwarfs its contents, for example—but overall the museum is the best part of the Getty complex. Most of the rest feels uncomfortably like the command post of a multinational conglomerate.

Why, then, was Meier chosen in the first place? There is always an unspoken personal aspect to the selection of any architect, not surprising in an art form so dependent on personal and social relations. As the late architecture critic Reyner Banham, a member of the first Getty committee, wrote in an article that appeared shortly before Meier was named,

…the real, hidden agenda behind most architectural competitions is not so much to pick a design as to pick a designer…. In the two days of heavy interviewing and discussions, we came back to the personalities again and again.1

Or, as Banham put it even more pointedly in private conversation at the time, “It will come down to whom the Getty wants to eat with for the next ten years.” His implication was that among the three finalists, neither the proper but rather stiff Fumihiko Maki nor the cantankerous Sir James Stirling (who died in 1992) was likely to be seen as an ideal long-term dinner companion.

Then there was the apparently pivotal role of Nancy Englander, the Getty Trust official who was in charge of “program analysis” and served on the nine-member committee that chose Meier from among the three finalists. (She and Harold Williams were also the non-voting members of the earlier group that selected the semifinalists.) According to a former close associate of Meier’s, Ms. Englander, a friend of Meier’s, “exerted enormous influence” in the ultimate decision to hire him. She left her position at the Getty in 1986 and later married Williams.

Meier is an architect of unquestionable gifts, and yet over the course of his career he has chosen to husband his skills with such cautiousness that his consistency now seems mere predictability. Ostensibly careful not to put a foot wrong, he has taken a narrow path that led him to the Getty, but once he got there he was unable to find much by way of fresh inspiration.

From the Getty’s institutional point of view, the combination of dependability and the lack of surprise in Meier’s work proved ideal. The Getty foundation does many admirable things: it publishes an important series of scholarly art history books and sponsors the most advanced research in the restoration and preservation of art objects. It distributes previously inaccessible archival material through computer technology, including, for example, the complete papers of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Use of that archive in Arizona had long required payment of an hourly research fee, a practice that inhibited Wright studies for many years.) Among academicians in art history and the humanities, an offer to become a fellow at the Getty Research Institute, with its immense library, ample services, and the agreeable climate of Southern California, is regarded as the intellectual’s equivalent of winning the lottery.

But the Getty is also a bureaucracy, and it is quite likely that the prevailing opinion was that no one’s position at the Trust would be adversely affected if Meier were in charge. But he wasn’t, exactly. Many outside forces bore down on him during the planning and design phases of the project. They came from the Getty’s competing fiefdoms; from the Brentwood Homeowners’ Association, which exerted heavy political pressure on local zoning agencies to restrict the bulkiness of the buildings; and from the various consultants that the Getty Trust retained to oversee the complex operation (including a “work therapist”). It is little wonder that the Getty Center metamorphosed into Meier’s camel, the proverbial beast designed by a committee.

  1. 1

    Reyner Banham, “Who’s King of the Mountain?” California, August 1984, p. 102.

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