Richard Meier's New Getty Center

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					Thomas F. Reese and Carol McMichael Reese. “Richard Meier’s New Getty
Center in Los Angeles,” A+ U, Architecture and Urbanism 328, no. 1 (1998):
                       Thomas F. Reese and Carol McMichael Reese

                    Richard Meier’s New Getty Center in Los Angeles

       Richard Meier's new Getty Center in Los Angeles opens to the public in
December 1997 almost fourteen years after the project was begun. It opens just
two months after Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim opened in Bilbao—another building
dedicated to the arts, which would also seem to be a milestone of twentieth-
century architecture, opened in Bilbao. As late-twentieth century cultural
symbols of cities, these projects will be often compared. As signifiers of the
aesthetic values of the institutions they house, they will be—justly or unjustly—
strongly contrasted.

       The concept of Meier’s Getty design is that of the canonical masterpiece
with strong classical and classical-modernist pedigrees. The concept of Gehry's
Guggenheim is that of the ambitious upstart building, which embodies the energy
of the daring gesture. Gehry’s Guggenheim is, to draw on art theorist George
Kubler, a “prime object” that eschews refinement, elegance, and polished finish
for carefully crafted illusions of spontaneity and of breaking all the rules. As Los
Angeles architects Craig Hodgetts and Ming Fung have observed, the Getty
targeted its investment towards classical perfection and material splendor, while
the Guggenheim/Bilbao allocated its budget towards large and expansive
gestures to symbolize dynamic new forms of energy and give more for less. The
Getty, however, was what Kurt Forster described as a “temple of art,” while the
Guggenheim was an “emporium.”

       Meier’s and Gehry’s projects can be further compared in terms of their
antecedents as symbols of institutional and urban values. Like Robert Smithson,
Gordon Matta-Clark, and California assemblage artists before them, Gehry
designed the Guggenheim/Bilbao on a site of entropy, decay, and ruination.
There he created a phoenix of urban renewal, rising from Basque labor and
industry, and symbolizing of the region’s wealth and pride. Within its historical
urban context of a former shipping center, the Guggenheim rises triumphantly
out of both the earth and the water like a scaled reptilian creature, symbolizing
the power of contemporary artistic creativity and renewal.

          In contrast, the Getty presented Richard Meier a virgin hilltop site at the
crossroads of two of the most visible axes of the city’s famously wealthy westside
and surrounded by the bucolic residential hideaways of Brentwood and Bel Air.
Meier wrote about the site in August 1984,

                 The spectacular site . . . invites the architect to search out a precise
          and exquisitely reciprocal relationship between built architecture and
          natural topography. This implies a harmony of parts; a rational procedure;
          concern for qualities of proportion, rhythm, and repose; precision of detail,
          constructional integrity, programmatic appropriateness; and, not least, a
          respect for human scale. . . . In my mind’s eye I see a classic structure,
          elegant and timeless, emerging serene and ideal, from the rough hillside,

          a kind of Aristotelian structure within the landscape.1

          Gehry built in a late twentieth-century high-tech industrial vernacular of
sorts, with polished titanium; Meier, in a time honored tradition of luxurious stone,
with Italian travertine, albeit cleft-cut in a sculpturally gestural manner. For the
Getty, Meier literally carved a monument into the top of a mountain, leaving the
center hollow to provide a protected and controlled public space that afforded
dramatic views between buildings of the distant landscape. Meier found his
inspiration for the skin of his building in the classical past of Italy, while Gehry
embraced contemporary technology. Meier’s is a monument of stasis, of being;
Gehry’s, one of becoming.

1Gloria  Gerace, ed., The Getty Center Design Process (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Trust, 1991), pp. 19,
21. Indeed, he also invoked in much more abstract and nuanced ways these references to an idealized vision
of the great architecture of the classical past in his first statements to the Trust about the buildings on
November 1, 1983.
       Many might like to choose one of these two paradigms over the other, but
there can be no doubt that both are works of extraordinary artistic and
architectural achievement. Gehry incessantly searches for the form that, no
matter how labored its birth, appears to be almost accidental. Meier works and
reworks every element into a rigorously controlled geometric matrix of
extraordinary complexity. This matrix provides a foundation upon which he
distributes the lucidly deployed masses that represent and house the primary
elements of his program. Visitors will not cease to delight in making discovery
after discovery of the myriad plays of alignments, shapes, and correspondences
within and among buildings and spaces on the site. They were a source of great
pride for members of the construction teams, as they discovered the role of the
small detail they installed in creating these larger harmonies.

       [The Trustees of the J. Paul Getty Museum appointed Harold Williams
president in May 1981. Together they created the J. Paul Getty Trust with the
goal of receiving in March 1982 oilman J. Paul Getty’s bequest to the Museum,
left on his death in 1976. The site of the Getty Center, which lies at the
intersection of Sunset Boulevard and the San Diego Freeway in Los Angeles,
was acquired in mid-1983. Following a fourteen-month search process led by
William Lacy of New York, the Trustees named Richard Meier as their architect
on October 1984. His design partner Michael Palladino took charge of the Los
Angeles office and the day-to-day interactions between the architect and the
client. Landscape architects Dan Kiley, Laurie Olin, and Emmet Wemple, and
artist Robert Irwin each played distinctive roles in the landscape and garden

       The Trust achieved a general accord with city officials about a Conditional
Use Permit (CUP) in February 1985, and issued a user program in March 1986
and an architectural space program in May 1986. Meier opened a Los Angeles
office in September 1986 and design began in earnest. The Trust made a formal
decision to proceed with design development and construction on the site in
September 1987.
       Construction began on the underground parking structure in the summer
of 1989, and the City of Los Angeles gave final approval to the Master Plan in
early 1991. This plan was formally unveiled in October 1991 to the general
public. Its cost estimates are generally described as about $1,000,000. The
Getty Trust, which employs on-site a staff of about 1200, includes the J. Paul
Getty Museum, the Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities,
the Conservation Institute, the Information Institute, the Education Institute, and
the Grant Program. These are distributed in six buildings on twenty-four acres at
the crest of the site. Traveling uphill toward the site, the visitor first sees the
Auditorium, the North Building (administrative offices and the Information
Institute), and the Cafe and Restaurant. Disembarking from the tram, the
Museum is visible, along with the upper portions of the East Building (the
Conservation and Education Institutes, and the Grant Program) and the
Research Institute. The first group of staff moved to the site in August 1996; the
last group in September 1997. The site opens to the public in December 1997.]

       A proper understanding of Meier’s design concept for the Getty must
begin, as he does, with the plan. There he laid out the grids, geometries, and
paths that guided the creation of the very complex parti for the Getty’s many
programs. His first studies were of orientation; he established two overlapping
grids that tied the site to the larger urban and geographical context. This was
standard practice in Meier’s office. One reflected the grid of the city; the other the
diagonal turn to the north of the adjacent San Diego freeway as it enters the
Sepulveda Pass to the San Fernando Valley.

       Subsequent site drawings were layered, transparent, and collage-like;
they studied the multiple levels of the site, looking for ways to create functional
adjacencies and linkages in horizontal strata across the site that are
underground and invisible to most visitors. These drawings reveal an interest not
in figure-ground relationships, but rather in compositions in which figure and
ground are conceived as integral units, recalling the experiments in the sixties
and seventies of artists like Rauschenberg, Johns, and especially Stella, with
whose artistic production Meier was intimately connected. Stella's diagonally-
inflected shaped and textured canvases in multiple planes of relief, executed in
the early seventies, are a case in point.

         Meier’s site drawings for the Getty also invoke archeological drawings,
especially those for the Getty site, where so much of the order is underground
and not visible at the surface. Meier’s project, packed with underground program
and interconnecting passageways, refers to these densely built Roman spaces
and reminds us of the imperial fora rather than Grecian freestanding bodies
articulating space. These subterranean layers required strong order. Not only
did Meier manipulate the adjacencies of numerous underground programmatic
elements and paths to achieve harmonious internal relationships, but they were
the foundations for the innumerable patios, sunken gardens, and skylights
mediating between the open three-story elevations above 896’ and the three-
story elevations sealed externally below 896’. These penetrations also brought
light and air into crucial spaces in the building filled with staff offices and work

         As Meier conceptualized these below grade relationships, he also worked
with each Getty entity in seeking the appropriate forms that might help each
realize its own programmatic goals and express its institutional identity. For each,
he developing an appropriate “modernist” concept, formal vocabulary, and
geometry to generate its unique form—an Aalto-esque arching volume for the
Auditorium, a mini-highrise slab for the North Building, Wrightian (and echoing
Neutra and Schindler) planes cantilevered from a service core for the East
Building, Kahn-like rectilinear geometries for the Museum, a Meier-esque
cylinder and spiral ramp around an open center for the Research Institute, and a
playful, open LeCorbusian pavilion for the Cafe and Restaurant. The forms of
each were, of course, integral to the whole, but were manifested most
emphatically at “plaza level”—the 896-feet-above-sea-level datum that legally
defined what was below ground and what was above ground. There, Meier
admirably satisfied each program’s desire to have its own characteristic “public”
architectural expression.

          Throughout, but especially in the eastern elevations, Meier’s allusions
were filtered through the admiration of the “classical modernists”--Le Corbusier
and Kahn--for such archetypal monuments as the Athenian Acropolis, Hadrian’s
Villa at Tivoli, and the Mediterranean hill town. Through them, he gave the Getty
the “urbane” image it wanted for the complex. Meier’s sense of urbane was
clearly shaped by Roman and Renaissance precedents, although he surely did
not discount Medieval examples from Assisi to Orvieto.

                   You cannot have form in architecture which is unrelated to human
          experience, in terms of architecture, without a strongly sensuous and
          tactile attitude toward form and space. . . . The landscape and the
          structure are entwined in a dialogue, a perpetual embrace in which
          building and site are one. In my mind I keep returning to the Romans--to
          Hadrian’s Villa, to Caprarola--for their sequences of spaces, their thick
          walled presence, their sense of order, the way in which building and

          landscape belong to each other.2

          In light of earlier “pre-Getty” trajectories of Meier’s design vocabulary and
given the centralized administrative structure that emerged in the Getty Trust
during the design process, it is remarkable that Meier orchestrated such different
architectural vocabularies for the programs within the densely configured site. He
also embedded deeper historical resonances—Schindler and Neutra for the
Conservation Institute, Education Institute, and Grant Program, the Alhambra in
Granada for the Museum, and Vignola at Caprarola for the Research Institute.

          In previous works, as did LeCorbusier, Meier rendered the essences of
the buildings in uniform thin-line drawings that defined almost weightless
volumes. These drawings, which are hallmarks of his aesthetic, were not

2The   Getty Center Design Process, pp. 19, 21.
expressive of masses and their spatial relationships, but rather of
interpenetrating planes and volumes. Several conditions of the Getty project,
however, led to a different effect than his habitual procedures predicted. These
conditions included (1) the client's and neighbors' demand that the buildings
utilize a material expressive of permanency, like stone, (2) the necessity to pack
extensive programmatic components underground in order to meet functional
specifications within the height and perimeter restrictions imposed in the
Conditional Use Permit, and (3) the need to provide an open and public core at
the center of the complex, as well as a more private core in each major building
to provide light and a sense of community.

       Mike Gruber's magnificent model shop, where drawings were quickly
rendered as solids that allowed the study and restudy of the relationship between
volumes and masses, held the key to the image of the project. Meier’s drawings
still controlled the interior movements and functional relationships, as well as
volumetric interpenetrations and transparencies, but through the models the
disposition of masses and external forms evolved.

       The thirteen-year period of gestation of the design solidified Meier's
control over his composition. Few--even those of us who lived through the
design process—recognize that the staggering number of conditions imposed
intrinsically by the client and the extrinsically by governmental agencies and
neighborhood groups strengthened rather than weakened the design. The
search for perfection and a phobia for criticism are institutional attitudes that
characterize the Getty, and Meier was constrained, but eventually enabled by
them. The architect eliminated all but essential elements, creating a taut and
clean composition that allowed the materials to express themselves without
compromise in the sometimes brilliant and ever changing California light.

       Meier's mastery of scale and proportion astound. Forms that looked
complicated and over-elaborated in the models are comprehensible and secure.
A characteristic of Meier's architecture is that his full control of ensembles can
only be appreciated when the last detail is placed in the space, and this includes,
of course, the visitors and other users who will occupy it.

       Meier’s Getty will yield infinite pleasures for visitors and photographers
with eyes disposed to discover intricate and breathtaking framed views and
spatial relationships. In Meier's work, the Getty afforded opportunities for a
variety of expression unparalleled in earlier works. These included the exterior
masses and elevations, the entrance conditions at the level of the Main Plaza,
the internal patios and courtyards, and finally the paths of circulation through the
site and each of its parts. Here, I will describe a few that illustrate the variety of
effects that Meier achieved in the project. They are (1) the distant views from the
north, south, and east, (2) the Arrival and Main Plazas, (3) the patios, sunken
gardens, and eastern terraces of the East and North Buildings, (4) the Museum’s
rotunda and courtyard, and (5) the program of the Research Institute.


       The urban identity of the Getty Center as a single institution is evoked in
the hill town or citadel image of the tightly clustered masses read from the south,
north, and east. Its strongly unified profile was generated by the height
restrictions of the Conditional Use Permit. Yet Meier's essential fascination with
processional space led him to foresee the exterior views of the complex from a
variety of angles. The two approaches to the Getty Center from north and south
along the San Diego Freeway were fundamental for long views, as were
glimpses from the west along Sunset Boulevard and from the east on Sepulveda

       As noted, the program as well as specific provisions of the Conditional
Use Permit dictated that the eastern elevations would be massive.
Nevertheless, neither Meier nor the Getty seemed uncomfortable with the
symbolic connotations of citadels, fortresses, and walled cities arrayed on
hilltops. Indeed, these became crucial prototypes in early trips by the Getty
directors to central Italy. Furthermore, they provided Meier the unique
opportunity for monumental and unified expression. In the end, the eastern
elevations of the complex are truly Roman in scale and weight.


       Most visitors arrive at the foot of the site and take an automated tram to
the crest of the hill. They exit the tram at the Arrival Plaza, which is so-named to
distinguish it from the Main Plaza, which is located twenty-feet above. But
probably for most visitors, the Arrival Plaza will be the Plaza. More than any
other component of the design, it represented the Getty’s dilemma about how to
communicate distinctions between private and public functions on the site that it
wished did not exist. The dilemma was reflected in the plethora of design
solutions that were proposed by Meier and his office for this space. The basic
issues were the arrival level for visitors (below—at 876’—or at the same level—
896’— as the public entrances to the different structures on the site), the shape
of the plaza (circular or rectilinear), the amount of open space distributed at 876’
and 896’, and the nature and hierarchies of the processional approach(es) to the
Central Garden and the distinct buildings at 896’.

       If any part of the design was compromised by the institution’s incertitude
about how to make these private-public distinctions, it was the Arrival Plaza. In
the end, what was accepted was a rectilinear solution that featured a broad
staircase which focused all attention on the Museum as the principal site of
destination. This solution not only reduced the space of the elevated Main Plaza,
but also introduced travertine walls and exuberant plantings, whose effects were
to screen the views of those institutes and programs that were not as fully public
as the Museum. As a result, the design proclaimed the Museum the most
important element in the composition, as it was for the general public, but not
necessarily for the Getty’s varied constituencies. Simultaneously, the design
defined the Main Plaza level at 896’ as the public domain of the site, relegating
the Arrival Plaza to the status of a corral-like area for the general public, as they
prepared for their ascent to the Museum, and of a general service entrance for
staff, who would enter their places of work through underground passages and

          [An earlier unexecuted design would, in retrospect, have perhaps been
more felicitous. It proposed a circular plaza at 876’ with two ascents—a bold
ramp to the Central Garden and gentle stairs that followed the long curve along
the retaining wall of the Arrival Plaza. As in the executed scheme, the site as a
whole would have become comprehensible to the visitor only as he reached the
upper plaza. But the arrival point was different. It was not at the entrance of the
Museum, but at a point further to the west where the principal axis of the Central
Garden beckoned him to continue his journey into Robert Irwin’s magnificently
varied landscape composition of light and color, and where the principal
buildings to the east of the complex were brought into tauter visual relationships
on the Main Plaza around the circular depression that defined the Arrival Plaza

          In the executed design, the Main Plaza is in reality an elevated platform
and bridge that provide a common datum for the Auditorium, Museum, and
Research Institute, and gateways to the North and East Buildings. The last two
buildings rise through open, sunken courtyards, whose bases are one, two, or
three levels below. At this elevation, Meier offers not so much a plaza, as a
grand public promenade before the buildings. The bridge concept in this solution
allows him to give strong clues to the public about the relative accessibility of
each program, so that the less public programs and activities are isolated from
the casual visitor by sunken gardens that allow sightseers to observe activities in
the buildings and watch staff congregate below, where they are secure from
unnecessary interruptions.]

       The visitor who arrives at the mouth of the Museum and determines to
explore the architecture along the eastern flank of the site will move along the
spine-like bridge that connects the Museum and the complex of three structures
at the northern end of the site. It defines one of two principal axes at the site—
the northern turn of the San Diego Freeway into the Sepulveda Pass. While it
connects buildings at either end, at the Getty Center almost all roads lead to the
Museum, and here, without exception, the composition pulls the eye towards and
then through the Museum’s rotunda for a view of the Pacific Ocean beyond. A
second spine, following the city’s grid orientation, governs the disposition of the
Arrival Plaza, the Cafe and Restaurant, the Museum, and Robert Irwin’s Central

       The North and East Buildings are conceived as a compositional unit.
Below 876’, and from the east, they form a bastion-like composition that is
cylindrical in its contours following the familiar hilltown imagery that dominates
the site. This rounded shape pulls the structures together and provides a
secure perimeter for the two separate buildings it harbors. In turn, they are pulled
into a complex interlocking composition, not so much by the solids, but by the
cascading series of sunken patios between them—each given strong identity
through its unique plantings.

       The views to the east from this bridge reveals a wonderfully varied and
contrasting set of gardens and terraces at different levels that are inaccessible to
the general public, but give glimpses into the inner life of the Getty Trust and its
individual programs. Given the exacting climate and security controls required at
the Museum and Research Institute, nowhere else on site was Meier so free to
exalt in the openness of structure that created a rich mix of interior and exterior
spaces as in the works of Wright, Schindler, and Neutra, but also broad
transparent planes of glass that allowed staff views out and public views in.


       The Museum courtyard is one of the consummate ensembles of Meier’s
Getty and of his career. In it, he achieves a poetry of material expression that is
perhaps unsurpassed since Louis Kahn. The Director of the Museum, John
Walsh, had admired the effects of relaxed scale and balance between
architecture and landscape at the Getty Museum in Malibu. His program called
for independent pavilions that afforded opportunities for processional itineraries
of the galleries at two levels—of light sensitive works of art at plaza level and of
paintings that required skylights above.

       Visitors enter the Museum through a magnificent backlighted lobby—an
open structure defined by spectacular plays of circles, squares, and sweeping
arcs of staircases that seem to float in the air. Beyond this exciting space of
welcoming and orientation opens a patio stonescape of sublime power. Its
drama derives from the bold composition of cleft-travertine masses that define
the pavilions for discrete sectors of the collections; they—or parts thereof—are
disposed on one or the other of the site’s two grids. That of the city, which
undergirds the Museum, is expressed in a lucid stonescape of almost translucent
travertine pavers, long tranquil water channels that reflect the sky, raised
“skybridges” bridges of metal-panel and glass that connect the pavilions, and a
long, gently rising ramp that sweeps visitors up to the temporary exhibition

       [The latter, which is elevated on stilts, provides one of many sequential
opportunities in the courtyard for carefully framed views of the Central Gardens,
the Research Institute, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and of Bel Air and the
San Gabriel Mountains to the east. The elegantly proportioned masses and
lateral breadth of this great patio, sparely and strategically punctuated by soft
plantings and large natural stones, provide a calm and poetic effect that is given
dramatic tension not only by diagonal deflections in all temporary exhibition
galleries, which correspond to the site’s alternate alignment, but also in a number
of cuts and insertions that occur in the tectonic planes that define the masses of
these pavilions.]

       Meier’s subtle orchestration of a structural vocabulary that juxtaposes
clefted stone and smooth metal panels is masterful. [The stone volumes signify
presence and permanence. The free-form shapes, composed of metal panels
and glass, are subtly deployed in the bridges that link the pavilions and in their
separate entrances, where they connote transition and passage.] This space
has a quiet grandeur enhanced by subtle changes in texture and proportion that
are brought magnificently to life by the California light.


       If Meier created a unique vocabulary for the sunken gardens and
horizontal planes of the East Building and for the poetic stonescape of the
Museum courtyard, he achieved, as noted above, effects of great exuberance
and magnificence in the Museum’s rotunda in a vocabulary that one might more
carefully identify as his own—Rafael Moneo once described it as Piranesian. The
same may be said of the design vocabulary he employed at the Research
Institute that occupies the western edge of the site, where the play of a circle and
a square generate the parti and the building. [In this way, the Research Institute
participates in the larger composition of circular shapes that occur throughout the
site—the plinth of the East Building, the Museum rotunda, the open cylinder of
the Research Institute, and the climactic labyrinth of the Central Garden. The
harmonies evident in plan, however, are generally intuited, rather than seen, as
in the exact correspondence in dimension between the Museum rotunda and the
Research Institute patio.]
       The circular shape of the Research Institute, however, was not proposed
for formal reasons by the architect. Rather, it emerged from detailed
programmatic discussions with Kurt Forster and his staff about the symbolic and
functional needs of the program for integration, openness, and a path that would
transport visitors from public to private spaces through subtly defined zones of
differential security. Indeed, the first designs resembled the configuration of the
present East Building, albeit with a glass-enclosed courtyard unifying the distinct
parts grouped around that core.

       In contrast, the present configuration is based on an interlocking
composition of a square base that houses vast zones for book and archival
storage and a radial core, rising from northeast corner of the square, that houses
a skylighted and telescoping circular reading room at its base. Around this
reading room, whose center is punctuated by a work by Andy Goldsworthy, rises
an open C-shaped cylinder with a spiraling ramp that provides access to the
library. This transparent vessel of light and passage, which contains spectacular
flights of space rising at one point through three stories, was created to allow
staff and researchers to experience the intense movement and activity at the
core of the institution, while enabling them to seek refuge on the quiet western
side of the structure, where they enjoy splendid views of the ocean. Here
Meier’s sensitivity to light, structure, and movement serving richly layered
functional, institutional, and symbolic goals might stand for multiple
accomplishments of a similar vein throughout the Getty complex.