Locations: 1200 Getty Center Dr Los Angeles, CA 90049
Size: 110-acre hilltop site
Cost: $1.3 billion
Official Opening Date: December 16, 1997
Nestled within the Santa Monica Mountains with a view that overlooks the splendor of Los Angeles’ landscapes–the Pacific Ocean on the west, the San Gabriel Mountains to the east, the glittering gridded streetscape of the city down below–sits The Getty Center, a billion dollar art museum and research campus. A site of impressive architecture, art, and landscape architecture, what’s even more amazing is the fact that The Getty Center was entirely privately funded and is still made free to the public.
The Getty Center was born from the collection and trust of J. Paul Getty, a successful oil businessman who was also an avid collector of art and antiquities. After his collection outgrew his property, a new and expanded campus was sited onto a hilltop in the Santa Monica mountains in 1983. Richard Meier, the architect of the site, opted for a modernist design that drew inspiration from its stunning surroundings–enameled metal and rough-cut travertine marble were selected as exterior materials to catch and reflect the light.
In addition to touring the amazing collections within The Getty, I attended both the architecture tour and the garden tour. As explained by the architecture docent, Richard Meier, famed architect and recipient of the coveted Pritzer Prize, carefully focused to integrate architecture with the surrounding landscape. For instance, the spatial organization of The Getty was based on the natural, surrounding topography. Two grid systems were used to organize the spatial layout of the Getty, with each grid aligned along the axes of the two naturally-occuring ridges. Buildings, walls, and tree lines were arranged to reinforce this axis. The primary unit for grid spacing is thirty inches, a measurement that Meier thought would bring the building down to a comfortable human scale. Relationships between landscape and the built environment were also explored through the senses. Rough cut travertine stone was selected not only to reference the textured chaparral plant communities that cover the adjacent hillsides, but for its effect in exhibiting the warmth and colors of the southern California sun. Meier, who was well aware of “museum fatigue,” also designed for “outdoor rooms,” stressing that the design of outdoor spaces between museums were as important as the buildings themselves.
The landscaping at the Getty Center was the result of a collaborative effort between many landscape architects and consultants, from Emmet Wemple, who was responsible for the landscape design at the Getty Villa in Malibu, to the Olin Partnership, who received an ASLA 2003 Design Honor Award for their efforts. The landscaped grounds are described as a “striking mix of ancient and modern”, drawing inspiration from the landscapes of southern California to the garden traditions of the ancient Mediterranean and drawing visitors in with a sensory experience of scents, textures, colors, and play on light and shade.
Out of all the gardens, however, the most famous and recognizable is the one not by a landscape architect, but by Robert Irwin, a renowned artist who, in collaboration with gardener Jim Duggan designed The Central Garden. Lying at the heart of the Getty Center, this 134,000-square-foot design features a natural ravine and tree-lined walkway, descending into a plaza with bougainvillea arbors, and finally into a cascade of water over a stone waterfall and a pool where that famous maze of azaleas are poised–though, since I visited in November, were not in bloom. It was a work that Irwin, who continued to walk The Central garden once a month for a decade to watch the landscape morph, called “sculpture in the form of a garden.”