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The Getty Center -- Architectural Description

Perhaps the most important element of the new Getty Center is its hilltop site in the Santa Monica Mountains, just off the San Diego Freeway. From there, visitors can take in prominent features of the Los Angeles landscape--the Pacific Ocean, the San Gabriel Mountains, the vast street-grid of the city. Inspired by this interplay, architect Richard Meier sought to design the new complex so that it highlights both nature and culture, creating a synchronistic, organic whole.

When approached from the south, the modernist complex appears almost to grow from the 110-acre hillside. Two three-car, computer-operated trams ferry visitors from a street-level parking facility to the hilltop site. The campus, clad largely in cleft-cut, Italian travertine, is organized around a central arrival plaza, and offers framed panoramic views of the city. Curvilinear design elements, like the circular Museum Entrance Hall and the canopy over the Harold M. Williams Auditorium entrance call to mind the Baroque. But there is also a bright openness to the complex, a horizontality reminiscent of the work of such Southern California modernists as Rudolf Schindler, Richard Neutra, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Richard Meier took many of his cues for the design from the site itself, and from the Trust planning team’s desire to retain the sense of openness found at the original Getty Museum in Malibu. The Getty Center’s six buildings follow a natural ridge in the hilltop. Working with this natural topography, Meier positioned the Center’s buildings at sites that are relatively public or private in character, depending on the needs of each. He also suggested a connection between the organization of the Center and the layout of the city’s grid. All six buildings are as open as security and conservation needs will allow. Galleries, offices, and the Auditorium lead out to courtyards and terraces; all offices receive natural light. Because the Getty’s neighbors requested that the complex be no more than two stories above grade, all of the buildings extend underground and are linked with subterranean corridors that facilitate the moving of artwork and other materials.

The use of stone--1.2 million square feet of it--is perhaps one of the most remarked-upon elements of the new complex. This beige-colored, cleft-cut, textured, fossilized travertine catches the bright Southern California daylight, reflecting sharply during morning hours and emitting a honeyed warmth in the afternoon.

Although Meier’s previous work has featured white metal-paneled walls almost exclusively, he chose stone for much of this project because it is often associated with public architecture. More importantly, the stone expresses qualities the Getty Center celebrates: permanence, solidity, simplicity, warmth, and craftsmanship.

The 16,000 tons of travertine used in the project were quarried in Bagni di Tivoli, Italy, 15 miles east of Rome. Split along its natural grain, many of the stones bear fossilized leaves, feathers, and branches. Meier and his staff worked for a year with the Bagni di Tivoli quarries to invent a "guillotine" process that would result in such a rough textured finish.

Travertine panels cover not only the retaining walls and the bases of all buildings, but also serve as paving stones for the arrival plaza and Museum courtyard, and on indoor walls in transitional spaces between galleries. For the non-public buildings, and the curvilinear elements of the Museum, off-white, enamel-clad aluminum panels have been used as the exterior surface.

Natural lighting is another of the Getty Center’s most important architectural elements. Many of the Center’s exterior surfaces are made of glass, allowing the brilliant Southern California sunshine to illuminate the interiors. Using a computer-assisted system of louvers and shades that adjust the intensity and quality of light, the paintings galleries on the Museum’s upper level are all naturally lit, with special filters to prevent damage to the paintings.

The Museum is comprised of five interconnected two-story pavilions, and offers visitors the choice of exploring the collections chronologically or of moving in and out of the pavilions at their leisure--taking time to enjoy the exterior courtyard spaces with the three fountains and Mexican Cypress trees, and the cactus garden to the south. Throughout the Museum, there is a freedom of choice, with routes that are fluid and criss-crossing. One can explore the galleries in sequence or at random, at first-or second-story level, without having to retrace one’s steps. Because of the interplay of interior and exterior space, between gallery and garden, one always knows where one is and where one has been.

The Getty Research Institute occupies a circular building on the western edge of the campus. Richard Meier worked closely with former Research Institute Director Kurt Forster in designing the Research Institute’s circular library, whose form evokes the introspective nature of scholarly research, and is used primarily by Getty Scholars and staff, as well as visiting researchers. Reference works, book stacks, and reading areas wrap around a dramatic central courtyard. A ramp creates concentric circulation paths, linking the activities of this open plan and promoting interaction among the scholars and staff. In the subterranean reading room, a skylight pulls light into the heart of this research center. Up at the plaza level, just off the entrance lobby, a small exhibition gallery attracts visitors to see objects from the Institute’s collections.

Other buildings on the Getty Center campus include the Restaurant building with its 225-seat restaurant, 415-seat Getty Cafe, and Trustees Boardroom; the East Building--home of the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Education Institute for the Arts, the Getty Grant Program--where intimate sunken gardens, terraces, and two exteriorized elevator shafts provide fluid movement between indoor and outdoor space; the North Building, home of the Getty Trust administration offices, Human Resources, and Public Affairs; and the freestanding 450-seat Harold M. Williams Auditorium, where visitors can attend films, lectures, colloquia, and music performances.

Composed of many unique design elements, beautiful gardens and open spaces, Richard Meier’s Getty Center harmoniously unites the entities of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and makes them accessible not only to Los Angeles but to the world.

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About the Getty:

The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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