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September 11, 2005 - Introduction and Reference Material

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The Getty Center, Los Angeles
Richard Meier and Partners
Robert Irwin, central garden - Emmet L. Wemple and Associates and the Olin Partnership, landscaping - Thierry W. Despont, interior gallery design -
Photographs from Friday, August 26. 2005

The Getty Center, Friday, August 26, 2005

"After fourteen years of planning, design and construction, the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles opened to the public in December 1997.  The Getty Center is one of the largest privately funded architectural complexes ever designed and constructed in a single architectural campaign.  Several books on the Center have already been published and it has been widely reviewed in the world's press." 


Charles Rhyne, an emeritus art history Professor at Reed College gives a good overview starting with those words at his Getty Center site - a large image database with an annotated bibliography.  The Getty Center has its own site, of course, with a page on the architectureRhyne reviews much of what is said, good and bad, about Richard Meier's masterwork up on this hill, while what you find at the Getty site is mostly promotional and depressingly factual - 164,648 square feet of exterior glass, sixteen thousand tons (a million square feet) of travertine marble from Bagni di Tivoli, the same quarry that supplied the stone for the Coliseum, the Trevi fountain and the colonnade at Saint Peters in Rome.  The Getty page opens with, "Unique design elements, beautiful gardens, and open spaces. Richard Meier's Getty Center harmoniously unites the parts of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and makes them accessible not only to Los Angeles but to the world."  Accessible it is - but perhaps oppressive.


For more on the architect see this biography - Richard Meier Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate, 1984.  There you will find this: "We are all affected by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, and Mies van der Rohe.  But no less than Bramante, Borromini, and Bernini.  Architecture is a tradition, a long continuum.  Whether we break with tradition or enhance it, we are still connected to that past.  We evolve."   And this: "... I think white is the most wonderful color of all, because within it one can find every color of the rainbow."  See also Meier's Building the Getty, his book about building the Getty, with much text but few illustrations.  You might check out his main site for further description and photographs.


Another useful biographical note, from early 1998, is The Master of Modernism by Alex Marshall.  That opens with this:


Bach wrote his musical masterpieces in the 1700s at a time when many people considered his Baroque style passé.  He proved them wrong.

Perhaps history might say the same about architect Richard Meier, the great master of modernism who labors away in the style three and four decades after its heyday.  Meier designs smooth, gleaming white buildings that denote a purity of form and a fascination with light, space and structure.

… Regardless of whether one is a fan of modernism, the architectural style developed after World War I that emphasized form and absence of ornamentation, no one denies that Meier is a colossus of the trade.  He circles the globe with his fellow superstar colleagues such as I.M. Pei, Michael Graves and Cesar Pelli, touching down to build museums, airports and concert halls.

Meier has been in this select group for two decades, roughly since he designed the Museum of Decorative Arts in Frankfurt in 1979.  In 1984, he was awarded the Pritzker Prize - the "Nobel Prize of architecture'' - at the relatively young age of 49.

However, Meier has entered an even more rarefied, and difficult, realm with his selection in 1984 to design the Getty Center in Los Angeles.  Known as "the commission of the century,'' it is probably the largest arts-related construction project ever attempted at one time.  Funded by the fabulous wealth of J. Paul Getty, the center opened last December after 14 years of hard labor by Meier and his company.

The final cost: a cool $1 billion.


And this assessment:

And just how good is the Getty?  Time will tell.  The reviews have ranged from ecstatic to mildly critical.  In sheer hoopla, it has been overshadowed by near adulation that has greeted architect Frank Gehry's new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain.  With its titanium skin and cartoonish forms, Gehry's building was praised by Hubert Muschamp of the New York Times as practically single-handedly saving contemporary art and culture.  But the Getty Center is so much larger than Gehry's Guggenheim, both in size and concept, that a comparison between them is not entirely fair.  Meier graduated from architecture school at Cornell University in the late 1950s at a time when modernism was king.  Victorian cornice lines, Art-Deco swirls or any other type of "decoration'' were out.  Instead, the lines of a building were presented nakedly to the viewer, unclothed so to speak.  Meier admired Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, who was perhaps the loudest proponent of modernism.  However, Meier was also influenced by the clean horizontal lines of Frank Lloyd Wright.

In Meier's Smith House, the first independent commission of his career, one can see all the elements that would occupy his work for the coming three decades.  Built in 1965-67, the house is a cube of glass, held together by white bands and white columns.  A lone white brick chimney shoots up one side.  The home, overlooking Long Island Sound in Connecticut, is Olympian in its purity.

In 1974, after mostly building expensive private homes for a decade, Meier completed a public housing project, Twin Parks in the Bronx.  In a variation on the classic Le Corbusier fashion, Meier placed medium-size towers in a park, with little clear street frontage or defined public space.  Whether fairly or not, to critics the project's sad fate shows the danger of modernist urban planning.

It was about this time that modernism as a whole came under increasing attack.  Smooth boxes of glass and steel seemed cold to some people.  Architect Robert Venturi declared that "less is a bore.''  Many believed that modernist urban planning principles were destroying core cities by inserting freeways and tall buildings set on plazas.  The profession moved on to post-modernism, deconstructionism and even traditionalism.  However, Meier did not abandon modernism, and is, in fact, perhaps the leading practitioner of it today.  And he resolutely defends the philosophy.


Well, see Lewis, Michael J. "How bad is the Getty?" - Commentary, vol. 105, no. 3 (March 1998), pp. 64-68.  (Excerpts here.) 


"… the Getty is worse, and worse in more ways, than even its critics have said."  Lewis maintains that "the entire travertine cladding has no more impact on the Getty's essential character than a paint job" and "Seldom has so much expensive material been used to less effect.  But the real problem with Meier's work is … overall coherence and order.  The visitor arriving in the Getty tram steps into a disorienting world.  The buildings jostle across the site in a relentlessly rambling geometry…"   He also says, "what the Getty misses is a sense of inevitability, the feeling that no architectural part could be moved without somehow worsening the whole."  And this: "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."


See also Perl, Jed. "Acropolis now," New Republic (26 Jan. 1998), pp. 25-31.  As cited by Charles Rhyne (see above) -


"Meier is unable to conceive of large spaces in terms of the experience of the people who are moving through them," "Meier's grids and circles and skylights are nothing but two-dimensional drawing-board concepts," "Meier's spaces have no flow," "Meier's buildings are a case of lofty architectural ambitions run amok," "the profiles of many of the buildings are so complicated that they fight the landscape," "the arrangement of the Getty collections in virtually free-standing pavilions creates a confused, stop-and-start museum going experience," "the courtyard at the heart of the museum is bleak," "you are confronted with such a labyrinth of staircases and plazas and balconies and parapets that you may not have the slightest idea where earth ends and architecture begins," "this colossal failure of architectural vision."


But also see Christy Rogers here -


I have started three or four essays on the Getty center, which usually devolve into general ruminations about Los Angeles, and finally dribble into musings about what exactly the ubiquitous and affecting Calvin Klein billboards are capturing - perhaps the brittle, viscous, luminescent chrysalis from child to adult - a visual capture that has a particular assertiveness in a city that is always in the act of becoming, of promising transformation.


LA's aura of imagination and transformation has deeply impacted its architecture, and thus it is all the more surprising, and somehow effective, to have the Getty stand as a conservative monolith on a hill; an extraordinary feat of civil engineering, stone carving, and exquisite interior lighting that, despite the fluidity of garden and water elements, is deeply and heavily anchored in Los Angeles.


It is as though Richard Meier were granted one last chance to keep aesthetic Western civilization from slipping away - from sliding down the western mountains and into the chaotic digital sea of the 21st century Pacific.  In a city that is 52% Hispanic and Asian stands an extraordinarily lovely epic poem to Western achievement.  It is this unlikely mix of cultures that gives Los Angeles, and the Getty Center, a volatile and dream-like beauty.


Or it's counterpart here from Raluca Preotu -


From a modernist perspective, Meier's geometry has its plusses.  It's elegant in that, going with Le Corbusier's directive, it offers a rational geometry and employs many predictable right angles.  It shuns what could be considered frivolity by preferring a minimal vocabulary of color - white with a clean touch of naturally light-colored travertine.  Moreover, besides being modernist, Getty is modern.  As critics have noted and Meier himself has avowed, Getty's formal vocabulary relates to classical examples, such as the Parthenon, or Hadrian's Villa.  The form is derived from the topography of the hilltop and builds harmony with the environment by reflecting two natural ridges: the grid of the city and the angle (22.5 degrees) of the San Diego freeway.


Another lesson is that of the dialog between open and indoor space - Meier mentions the movement of people through these spaces, "the long walls that extend into the landscape relating built form to nature," as well as the hope "to have one level of the cafe left unwalled." 


For all this, however, critics complain of rigidity and lack of attention to the humans mingling with Meier's architecture.  Both criticism target, in fact, modernist architecture in general - an architecture too rational and which plays too little on emotion to allow crowds to become a part of it.  In other words, this is an architecture which promotes coolness by treating the people as intruders rather than participants.  In accounts reminding of the Corbusian urbanism in the city of Brasilia, architectural historians have noted Getty's failure of encouraging vibrant public places.


Maybe that's the problem.  There's deadness to the place.


That leads to the oddest item:


From the Getty Center to the Fountainhead

Los Angeles, April 24, 1998: Heinz Emigholz


… Driving down Sunset Boulevard on the way to the public toilets in the Will Rogers State Park, one encounters a strange sight at the junction to the San Diego Freeway.  Rising from the crest of the flattened out foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains is a well-organized complex of buildings constructed from pale-coloured tuff.  It is the new Getty Center, designed by Richard Meier & Partners. Even from this distance, it is possible to make out many of the details of this cluster of buildings.  Armed with our entrance tickets (duly applied for months in advance) Peter Dreher and I were soon aboard the rack-railroad car that toiled up the side of the mountain, on our way to lifting the veil that shrouds the secret of the site's perspective.  Details familiar to us from Meier's Museum für Kunsthandwerk in Frankfurt on Main: obstructed stairways; a maze of balustraded walkways and isolated, spotlit trees commandeered to pose as nature - overdrawn so as to be easy to spot from a distance - had been exaggerated here to monstrous proportions.  Meanwhile, inside the building, the artworks have been mounted forlornly on enormous chimneystacks (one for each epoch - not the best, but no doubt the most expensive art).  While this peculiar display of genre painting as "fireplace art" promptly sent my companion into an acute bout of depression, I was amused.  As a centre-cum-graveyard for the collection, this solid, earthquake-proof complex that is now impossible to divorce from one's image of the place is rather like a calling card for a future assignment as production designer on a James Bond movie (although it should be noted that the centre does not adhere to the fundamental rule that film sets must be scaled down by 15 percent to display to perfection the bone structure of expensive actors).  Although the entire complex may well hold more appeal as an imaginary rather than a real piece of architecture, the fact remains that, had the architect gone for just a little less effect in this complex, the result might at least have been a little more visionary than the current hodgepodge of different genres.


Much follows on the villa designed by Richard Neutra in 1935 for Josef von Sternberg being torn down at the time - a year after Neutra's death.  Ayn Rand, of all people, had by then purchased the house from Von Sternberg.  Shift to The Fountainhead – the book and movie.  Richard Meier as Howard Roark as played by Gary Cooper?  It's an interesting read.


As seen from a distance (slightly doctored) –

The Getty Center

Contemporary comment from the French daily, Libération – (not on web, just in the files) -

French daily, Libération, on the Getty Center

French daily, Libération, on the Getty Center

A good photo review can be found in Domus – the Italian design magazine (indexed here but not available on the web) - December 1997, pages 38-51


Conception et réalisation des bâtiments de la fondation P. Getty pour l'art contemporain à Los Angeles.
Cet ensemble architectural ayant été pensé comme une petite ville, Richard Meier développe une architecture "totale" (urbanistique).
Cette "ville de l'art" est un pole de création et d'exposition unique au monde.


I have the issue here in Hollywood.  Drop by and take a look – good maps and structural detail. 

These photos are posted for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.  See the Details page for the relevant citation.  They may not be used commercially.  There is a copyright notice at the bottom of each page, of course.   These were shot with a Nikon D70lens AF-5 Nikor 18-70mm 1:35-4.5G ED or AF Nikor 70-300mm telephoto.  They were modified for web posting using Adobe Photoshop 7.0



Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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