A theme park for the arts Museum: Los Angeles' new Getty Center provides grand places to see and study great works.

December 21, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

LOS ANGELES -- The new Getty Center is a microcosm of its city: It's big. It's sprawling. It gleams in the sun. It's hard to grasp all at once. It's very much car-dependent.

Yet this $1 billion cultural mecca, the most expensive arts complex ever built in North America, also possesses traits not usually associated with trend-conscious L.A. Up on a hill, removed from the city below, it has a feeling of permanence and serenity, a timeless quality found in such ancient settings as Delphi in Greece or the Great Pyramids of Egypt.

This juxtaposition of contrasts -- new and old, man-made and natural, of-the-moment and seemingly ageless -- makes the Getty Center a fascinating addition to the Southern California landscape. In the land of passing fancies, it speaks to -- and for -- the ages.

The Getty Center is a 110-acre cultural campus that brings together the work of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which consists of separate institutes for activities such as research, art conservation, education and museum management as well as a public museum.

The first Getty museum was established in the 1950s in a now-closed Malibu estate that is being converted to a center for comparative archaeology and culture.

The institutes had been scattered around the Los Angeles area. In the 1980s, trustees decided that consolidation would strengthen each department. And they had the funds to do it -- more than $1 billion from the estate of eccentric oilman J. Paul Getty, who died in 1976.

The result, after 13 years of planning and construction, is a

museum environment like no other. It can perhaps best be seen as a theme park for the arts: Gettyland, a serious counterpart to Disneyland, Universal Studios and other entertainment complexes that abound here. The experience even starts with a theme park-style ride, a driverless tram that takes visitors on a five-minute trip from a parking garage at the base of the hill to museum buildings 900 feet above.

This is a place where gardens have equal billing with galleries, and where visitors are encouraged to gaze at panoramic views in the distance. It is conceivable that many visitors will make the trek and not see any "art" at all.

Yet this is also a place for serious study and contemplation, a stage for humanistic inquiry, a world-class research center where scholars from around the world will come to unravel the mysteries of man.

Visitors may find beauty in the Venetian paintings on display, or the graceful curves of the buildings. They may learn how to tell whether a Greek statue dates from 530 B.C. or is a modern forgery. Or they may simply be bowled over by a glorious sunset. But one way or another, they're likely to find something to help them make a connection between their lives and those who have gone before.

"The Getty Center is not a monastic retreat," Richard Meier, the New York architect who heads the design team, said at a press preview just before the Dec. 16 grand opening. "It's not a place where one asks, 'Who am I?' It is a place to ask, 'Who are we?' The architecture had to create an ideal version of the social space of the city itself."

The architect

Designing a place that is equally inviting to scholars and museum-goers was one of the challenges for Meier, 63, an award-winning architect who works in a Modernist vein.

Meier responded with an assemblage of pavilions clad in off-white metal panels and rough travertine stone from Italy. Together, they form an instant Acropolis of the Arts. As seen from below, these buildings are somewhat intimidating, like a series of department stores without the mall in between. Up close, each is quite different, with forms and openings that reflect its particular place on the hillside and the activities within.

The Getty Trust initially considered engaging a stable of designers, as the Walt Disney Co. has done for its corporate buildings. But, because Getty was bringing its disparate divisions to one location for the first time, it decided a single architect would better express the new unity.

Using one architect was a pragmatic decision, too, because the buildings are all physically interrelated. As Meier tells it, the Getty Center is one building, even though it appears to be nine or 10. The separate pavilions in the park all have additional space and are connected underground. For that reason, it made sense to have one architect coordinate everything.

And Meier was a good choice, because he had extensive experience designing museums, laboratories, offices, libraries and auditoriums.

Educated at Cornell University at a time when the architecture school's curriculum emphasized the work of modern masters such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, Meier has never strayed far from his Modernist roots.

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