The institution’s travertine fortress is Richard Meier’s magnum opus – the perfect embodiment of a contemplative approach to culture now vanished
The original Getty was a nightmare to get to – a dubious replica of a Roman villa, pre-Vesuvius, on a hill just off the Pacific Highway. Then, in 1997, the new Getty Center opened in the Brentwood Hills, high above the San Diego Freeway, having cost an unprecedented £1 billion. And it was still a nightmare to get to. This rugged, remote site was purchased in 1983 to amalgamate the Getty’s multi-faceted scholarly and public activities, and was selected in haste to capitalise on a burgeoning endowment and avoid profiteering from savvy landowners. Public condemnation greeted this act of elitism, which scorned urban regeneration for academic elevation. This was soon followed by well-concealed internal remorse over the financial and reputational cost.
Still, the show must go on, and out of a cock-up came Richard Meier’s masterpiece, its very isolation adding to its perfection. From a distance, the Getty Center appears more corporate fortress than Tuscan village, but as you ascend on the ‘Getty Tram’, the scene gradually resolves into university campus; then, as you pass through the arrival plaza, into the Ideal City of the Renaissance imagination. Six buildings – all connected underground, but each with its own separate identity – are carefully positioned within the undulating landscape, using a grid dictated by the angle between the main ridge and the adjacent freeway. Clad in textured, cleft-cut travertine – 16,000 tonnes of it – and off-white aluminium, the structures change hue under California’s strong blue skies – ‘the best and most versatile building material’, in Meier’s words. A crisp play of light and shadow activates the architecture, emphasising solid and void, angle and curve, surface and volume.
The underlying grid imbues the plan with order. The bold geometric forms of the five museum pavilions rotate carefully around fountains and planting, offering both occlusion and long, open perspectives. They communicate permanence and grandeur – aided by their urbane cladding – but also intimacy and movement, merging European and American approaches to museology. Inside, luminous interiors offer superb, shimmering views, precisely framed by picture windows, across Los Angeles to the Pacific or the San Gabriel Mountains, drawing visitors out onto the numerous terraces and balconies. The experience is otherworldly – part classical, part monastic, part modernist, part utopian.
The build, however, was anything but harmonious. Meier was chosen in 1984 via a 33-practice conceptual showdown rather than a concrete proposal, speeding a scheme with an uncertain programme, but papering over the tensions that were to bedevil the project. Conflict arose in part over slipping deadlines and escalating costs (buildings were shrunk by 12 per cent with mixed results, and there was even talk of abandoning the project in the late 80s); but in greater part over competing professional integrities. Given the appointment of the archetypal ‘white’ neo-modernist rather than a ‘grey’ postmodernist, the Getty’s collections – almost all pre-1900 – were unlikely to be accorded the period settings most curators desired. Many were also unconvinced that Meier’s previous museums provided sympathetic containers for art. In any case, the fetid, competitive atmosphere of the world’s richest institution, still expanding its idiosyncratic collections apace – with ethical standards often taking a back seat – was hardly conducive to clarity, communication and collegiate behaviour.
Meier’s choice of travertine deflated initial sparrings (as well as the objections of well-heeled locals), but his vision for the central garden as a link across the ravine – and between public and private spheres – was supplanted by an infelicitous Richard Irwin commission. Most incendiary, however, were the gallery interiors. In 1989, interior designer Thierry Despont – a favourite of Bill Gates and Ralph Lauren – was brought in to dress the decorative arts rooms with period reconstructions and replicas, a remit that soon expanded to other areas. Official publications maintained a gracious narrative of exacting yet constructive debate; the reality was frank confrontation. Meier’s own book, Building Getty, quotes Francesco Dal Co’s priggish disdain in Casabella for this ‘explosion of vulgarity’ with conspicuous relish; Despont was equally forthright in return.
Despite its obvious architectural and public success – a regional player had been transformed into an art-world leviathan – the Getty Center exists in a strange symbiosis with Bilbao’s Guggenheim by LA transplant Frank Gehry. The latter completed the same year, stealing much of Meier’s thunder and signalling the future of the branded museum as a crowded marriage of culture, commerce and populism. The Getty, however, achieves something equally impressive, and arguably of greater importance. Its enriched modernism employs a formal language of geometry, surface and volume to respond to both programme and context. Meier called this collagist approach to composition a ‘spatial lyricism with the canon of pure form’, carefully moulded to create a still point above the restless transience of Los Angeles and enhance the contemplation of art. The Getty Center is the architectural and intellectual embodiment of – and farewell to – the patrician ideal that shaped cultural and civic contexts in the United States for a century or more. It is a timeless hilltop utopia that will never be repeated, even amid the high-tech lucre of contemporary California.