Commentary Magazine

How Bad Is the Getty?

After fourteen years of planning and construction, and at the cost of a cool billion dollars, America’s most expensive art museum, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, formally opened on December 12 of last year. By now, most of newspaper-reading and television-watching America will have seen luscious pictures of the complex of buildings above the hills of Brentwood, clad in rich Italian limestone, and heard of the tram ride that ushers visitors to the summit. Nor, with notable exceptions, have the critics been chary of praise. Even some of the negative reviews have been wrapped in gorgeous photographic spreads that manage to make them look more like puff pieces, thus perversely reinforcing the notion that not architecture but public relations is the central art form of the late 20th century.



The roots of the Getty Center reach back to 1953, when the oil baron J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) created a museum in Malibu to house his collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. These were shifted twenty years later into a new building, a dignified and elegant recreation of the famous Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius. The architecture, hardly avant-garde, was typical of Getty’s blunt and rather literal taste, though also recalling the way the robber barons of 19th-century America assembled their buildings out of fragments of what they had seen and admired in Europe.

At Getty’s death in 1976, the bulk of his estate was left in trust to the museum, with a loosely-worded charge to promote “the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge.” Since then, and particularly after Getty Oil was purchased by Texaco in 1984, the endowment has soared. Today it is estimated at about $4 billion.

The Getty trust first entered the art market as a major force in 1979, when it paid $15.7 million for two paintings, one statue, and four Gobelin tapestries. Although these were works of the highest order, the myth that developed in the early 1980’s of an all-powerful, all-purchasing Getty surging through the auction houses and lifting international prices in its wake was ill-founded. Strict export laws now guard most European countries against loss of their cultural patrimony; even in the relatively permissive case of England, there has been no flood, and the paintings that have left have mostly been minor. Only in the area of drawings and watercolors was the Getty able to put together a first-rate collection.

Still, the Getty trustees seem to have been discomfited by all the talk of incontinent buying. Harold M. Williams, who in 1981 became president of the Getty trust, therefore redirected its focus from purchasing objects to disseminating information about art. In the next few years the Getty was transformed into a bouquet of separate bodies: a research institute, with generous resident fellowships and a program of first-rate publications; a conservation institute, to test and develop new techniques and to preserve endangered sites internationally; an education institute, to help integrate the teaching of art in elementary and high schools; an information institute, which now coordinates the growing number of computer databases that deal with art; and finally and perhaps most shrewdly, a continuing-education program for museum directors, which has become an engine for creating good will toward the Getty among professionals. With these five institutes—plus a vigorous grants program, which awards over $6 million annually—there is now virtually no aspect of art in this country in which the Getty is not involved.



If Williams succeeded at his first task, which was to change the public perception of the Getty, his second task was to create a building to house the institution he had so drastically transformed. In September 1983, he announced the purchase of one of the last major open sites in Los Angeles: 110 acres on which the Getty Center would be built, plus another 600-odd acres to be set aside as a nature preserve, all highly visible above the hills of Brentwood. Too visible, it transpired. The Brentwood Homeowners Association pressed hard for the buildings to be kept as unobtrusive and unmonumental as possible, and the Getty quickly complied. Just as it had worked to downplay its power in the art market, it now sought to assure the people of Los Angeles that the physical institution it contemplated would not be an arrogant citadel on a hill but, rather, accessible, egalitarian, and free of charge.

Moving with exquisite caution, the trustees took more than a year to find an architect. Instead of following the customary practice—sponsoring a competition and soliciting designs—the Getty selected 33 firms and asked them to submit letters and résumés, but no drawings: it was looking not so much for a specific design as for a man it could work with. At last, in October 1984, after an extended architectural tour of America, Europe, and Japan, the commission was awarded to the New York architect Richard Meier, then forty-nine.

Meier already enjoyed a reputation as a purist. He was the last of the Whites, a group of self-consciously cerebral architects who identified themselves with the European modernist movement of the 1920’s, and in particular with the celebrated Swiss architect Le Corbusier. His formative years had been spent in the office of Skidmore Owings Merrill, the great postwar corporate firm that applied the lean, rational forms of European modernism to the demands of American commercialism. In the late 1960’s, Meier struck out on his own with a series of small houses, arriving at his personal version of the Le Corbusier formula: a minimalist vocabulary of cubes and planes, festooned with stair ramps and thin railings of nautical crispness, the whole rendered in a one-note palette of hospital white.

The Getty’s selection of Meier was at once daring and predictable. For all his stylistic pyrotechnics, he was the establishment candidate, honored in the professional journals and wrapped in a mantle of corporate respectability. To a selection committee wary of loose cannons, there could not have been a safer pick. After all, Meier had been building the same kind of building—including recent museums in Atlanta and Frankfurt—for fifteen years straight.

The design devised by Meier between 1984 and 1989 was in some measure predestined not only by his own temperament but by the brief given him. To house the Getty’s separate institutes and the grants program, a loose and informal complex of structures was proposed rather than a monolithic pile. Meier scattered six separate buildings across the site, making what he calls a “campus” or—in a term he lets others use—an acropolis.

As on an acropolis, topography determined where the individual buildings would lie. Across the brow of the site ran two sharp ridges, meeting acutely at an angle of 22.5 degrees. This angle became important to Meier: he made it the geometric leitmotif of the entire design, repeating it endlessly in the orientation of various major and minor features. If the buildings were slung along the lines of the two ridges, at the intersection he placed the museum rotunda, the pivot of the design.

The result is certainly a museum experience—if not a museum—like no other. The visitor arrives in a twelve-story underground parking garage (for which a reservation is required), ascends by elevator to a tram station, and enters a white cable car that in a five-minute ride ushers him briskly and noiselessly to the summit. Here he finds himself on a broad open plaza, defined by a relaxed array of buildings: an auditorium and administrative offices to the left, a restaurant to the right, and a flight of stairs leading ahead to the museum itself. Each of these structures sits on a common plinth, from which they emerge discontinuously, like the superstructure of a ship, permitting views between them into the landscape. And, air quality permitting, these views are spectacular. On good days the snow-topped Sierras frame the vista to the east, while Los Angeles, and the Pacific beyond, open panoramically below. Only from the Getty, Meier has insisted in a typically heady claim, can that fractured and disjointed entity known as Los Angeles be seen as a totality.



The advance reviews of the Getty were almost universally adulatory, and for a time it seemed as if the good will that Harold Williams had so carefully solicited would exempt the institution from any truly harsh judgments. Even the few grumbles that became audible in the weeks before the opening were quite noticeably muted.

Thus, Lawrence Weschler’s New Yorker article, “When Fountainheads Collide” (December 8, 1997), an exercise in architectural criticism by gossip, offered a lengthy look at the corrosive relationship between Meier and Robert Irwin, the landscape gardener and artist who designed the park alongside the complex. The story was told sympathetically from Irwin’s point of view; the architecture of the Getty itself was mentioned only in passing, saluted for its “Aristotelian” character and its “rationalist, geometric rigor.” Herbert Muschamp, the architecture critic of the New York Times, likewise abstained from directly negative comment, although he conspicuously declined to swoon over the Getty as he had done just recently over Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

By the time of the opening, the momentum had admittedly shifted somewhat. Martin Filler, in the New York Review of Books, termed the Getty “frenetically overdesigned” and incoherent, while Robert Campbell, the architecture critic for the Boston Globe, stated what has since emerged as a consensus view: that there is no “single large ordering principle, no master narrative” at the Getty, and that the design contains no “place of centrality or rest.” (Campbell also rushed to add, however, that “this isn’t a pan.”) In the architectural press, the Getty has by now been repeatedly compared invidiously with the Bilbao museum. It is a particularly rich irony that Meier the radical purist has received his most glowing notices in society magazines like Town and Country, which found the Getty “poetic and sophisticated, lively and monumental.”

In fact, the Getty is worse, and worse in more ways, than even its critics have said. This is so beginning with its most admired feature, the use of cut stone.

Although the upper parts of the Getty’s buildings are rendered in Meier’s customary white, enameled-metal panels, he was persuaded to clad much of the lower parts in travertine, the quintessential stone of ancient Rome. Delivered from Italian quarries, this buff-colored material is used on the grandest scale, amounting to 29 acres of wall surface. It has been sawn (actually guillotined) into panels 30 inches square and eight inches thick, with the outer surfaces left as craggy as a quarry wall. In a complex of almost anorexic austerity, here, at least, is one note of tactile pleasure.

Yet Meier is not the architect one would pick to find a use for 14,000 tons of travertine. He represents a tradition that is relatively indifferent to materials, being much more interested in the formal properties of planes and lines; his walls are invariably thin continuous skins, serving only to define space. To the extent he has been preoccupied with materials in his career, it has only been to overcome their physical properties, to dissolve them in a shimmering wall of dematerialized white.

And so the entire travertine cladding has no more impact on the Getty’s essential character than a paint job. The panels are not even truly a skin, for they are carried on metal clamps, riding above the actual surface with no mortar between them. “A plane is a plane,” Meier has shrugged in response to criticism that the travertine might have been used in a way more expressive of the structural properties of stone. But wallpaper is also wallpaper, even if it is eight inches thick. Seldom has so much expensive material been used to less effect.



But the real problem with Meier’s work is not materials. It is something much more fundamental, having to do with overall coherence and order.

The visitor arriving in the Getty tram car steps into a disorienting world. The buildings jostle across the site in a relentlessly rambling geometry, following, apparently capriciously, the line of one or the other of the two ridges. Everywhere are fragments and shards of axes, and interpenetrating rectangles. So busy is the complex that where a motivated bit actually appears, as in the big flange of roof that marks the entrance to the museum rotunda, it tends to get lost in the general hurly-burly.

The only resolved passage of the whole ensemble is the museum: a U-shaped arrangement, dominated by the rotunda at the north and opening at the south onto Brentwood and the valley below. To either side, a range of pavilions houses the various painting and sculpture galleries, each devoted to a different period or collection. The arrangement is a paraphrase of the great lawn of Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia, whose domed library presides over ten separate pavilions, linked by continuous arcades and forming a grand monumental axis. Meier himself clearly takes pleasure in the comparison.

Unfortunately, the comparison is not flattering to Meier. A monumental axis is perhaps the most ancient of all planning tools. It remains a peerless way for organizing and giving coherence to a great swath of space, and it can also give a sublime emotional lift. But Meier seems to have gone out of his way to thwart all this. His separate pavilions are a jumble, and the main view, which might have been a heroic procession, is blocked by a centrally-placed support on the rotunda precisely where a visitor might most advantageously place himself.

Even the view itself is a cheat. In another sop to the powerful Brentwood Homeowners Association, which dreaded the prospect of visitors peering from the edge of the promontory, the far end constricts to choke off the procession. The result is that Meier’s great avenue has all the elements of a heroic vista—the axis, the framed vantage point, the terminating accents—except the vista itself.



What it comes down to is, paradoxically, geometry. Meier’s buildings are absolutely marinated in geometry—in their siting, in their divisions and subdivisions, in the carefully devised proportional relationships among the elements, and above all in the 22.5-degree basso ostinato that quivers throughout the entire complex. It is just this fascination with the manipulation of geometry that has caused him to be labeled “Aristotelian,” as if straight lines and a pose of seriousness make one a philosopher.

But the geometry that haunts Meier’s world is more non-Euclidean than Aristotelian. He does not use axes and cross-axes to discipline his vast sweep of land and buildings, as in French classicism; instead, the paths of movement and the abstract order of the composition belong to entirely different systems. Rather than anchoring the hierarchy of spaces, Meier’s geometry is nothing more than a design aid, based on an accidental feature of the site that is left invisible to the visitor.

Moreover, for all its display of geometric rigor and austere intellectualism, the Getty’s architecture is not all that rigorous. In Building the Getty1 his own alternately revealing and obfuscating account of the commission, Meier recalls how for a time in the 1950’s he had toyed with the idea of becoming an artist, and even kept a painter’s studio. In particular, he became an avid maker of collages. After winning the Getty commission, he created his own portable collage kit, a wooden box containing scissors and glue that he could carry with him on planes. Bound in scrapbooks, these collages form a kind of abstract diary of the project.

They also form an insight into its missing formal order. Meier’s collages are not the only place where the aesthetic ideas of 1950’s New York still swirl. His Getty is itself a collage of sorts, with the same scattering of details and vignettes across a surface that never rise up to a resolution. In the capriciousness of the Getty’s detailing (as when Meier introduces a curve or a fragment of a wall), there is a certain improvisational character, a stream-of consciousness method reminiscent of 1950’s action painting, the all-over style of Jackson Pollock carried out in metal stairs and curving parapets.

In the end, what the Getty misses is a sense of inevitability, the feeling that no architectural part could be moved without somehow worsening the whole. That this is not an unattainable goal can be verified by a visit to almost any of the modern buildings of Louis Kahn, whose Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, has the unimprovable Tightness of a classic. With Meier’s collage method, any of the arbitrary angles might be changed, many of them for the better, and the sense is of a Rubik’s cube whose parts have been caught in a snapshot but which will continue to rotate, endlessly and unhappily, in search of some distant but permanently elusive order.2



Apologists for the Getty have suggested that it is the commission of the century. Perhaps so; but if buildings achieve greatness in part by addressing the central issues of their age, the Getty is great only by inadvertence. Built on the revenue of what was the world’s largest oil company, in the first and still the most automobile-conscious city in the world, it holds both automobile and—more significantly—city at arm’s length, tucked out of sight. If the Getty expresses any theme of our age, it is the declining relevance of civic life. The Getty is the first gated art museum.

If it is, in fact, a museum. A visitor might spend many hours at the Getty and never encounter a painting or a statue. Not even in the rotunda that forms the museum’s centerpiece is there any sense of the presence (or even the proximity) of art, which is sequestered in the pavilions beyond. If the traditional museum was an architectural jewel box for the objects within, at the Getty the art sits in discrete containers, much like a corporate collection in a carefully manicured boardroom. Indeed, although Richard Meier refers to his complex as a campus, critics have likened the Getty to the anonymous, antiseptic headquarters of a pharmaceutical company. This is a thrust that hits home.

The Getty mimics corporate headquarters in another way as well. Without exception, the great museums of the modern world have been tied to a physical place, inevitably a city. From the Dresden Staatsgalerie to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, these are institutions built and sustained by patrons whose lives have been played out in the surrounding physical precincts. But in recent years our financial and commercial institutions have moved to suburban office parks, and with the change of venue has come a loss of interest in urban affairs. It is an open question how the modern art museum will change when its physical relationship to the city—and thus also to the community of artists—is severed. But such a move is certainly under way, and the Getty is not the only example of it. The Guggenheim, too, has embarked on an ambitious program of decentralization, of which the Bilbao building is only one manifestation.

The visitors who will assuredly throng the Getty will perhaps not notice the absence of art. As they stroll the galleries in silent awe, they may not even register how disconnected from the world of living culture is Richard Meier’s ostentatiously cautious and cautiously ostentatious temple. But the trustees of the Getty, even while strenuously denying they ever intended to construct a citadel on a hill, have gotten exactly what they paid for, and presumably what they wanted. For the sake of our cultural and our civic health, one can only hope the model is not admired too much, or copied too freely.



1 Knopf, 204 pp., $35.00.

2 A hint of such order might have been provided by the relationship of the buildings to their landscape, but Meier’s lack of interest in the land is one of the striking hallmarks of his work. The one idea he derived from the site—the intersection of the ridges—hardly served as a landscape form at all, but rather as an architectonic motif. Much has been written of the relationship of the Getty to its site, which is indeed splendid. But a splendid site does not a splendid building make.


About the Author

Michael J. Lewis, a frequent contributor, teaches at Williams College. He is the author most recently of American Art and Architecture (Thames & Hudson)

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