Friday, November 22, 2013

The Getty Museum: Legacy of the World's Richest Man

The Getty Museum - Brentwood, California
public domain photo

The Getty Museum: Legacy of the World’s Richest Man
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

At the hilltop entrance plaza to the Getty Museum in Southern California, I listened to the soft hum and flow of vehicles on the 405 freeway, some 800 feet below. My eyes scanned the adjacent hillsides of Bel Air and Brentwood where modern mansions perched on the edges and tops of the Santa Monica Mountains. Farther out, the skylines of Hollywood and L.A., and the Pacific Coastline congealed with the haze on the horizon. My first impressions of the museum were its size, the modern design, and the unusual location. The complexities of the museum’s history, its bigger-than-life benefactor J. Paul Getty, and the massive campus designed by renowned architect Richard Meier, all seemed to melt away in the warm sunlight and the cool breeze.
J. Paul Getty’s life (1892-1976) had many phases and facets. Through cultivating his skills in the Oklahoma oil patch, he became a millionaire at the age of twenty-three. He briefly tried retirement, lived in Southern California and partied with the Hollywood set, becoming a womanizer and a bored bachelor. Eventually, he turned his focus back to the oil business in Southern California, where he began acquiring other oil companies. Unfortunately, his business acumen didn’t translate well to his family life. He married and divorced five times from 1923 to 1958. His focus was on the growing network of oil companies, as well as chasing women, and he had little time for his ex-wives and his children.
View looking south from the entry plaza
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

The three-quarter-mile-long funicular/tram ride from the valley removed me from the mundane burdens of the work-a-day world below and delivered me into the heart of the unusual campus. The building elements of canopies, stairways and overhangs created interplay of sunlight and shadows. I sensed this was a place of genuine cultural enlightenment, and quite possibly, a mecca for modern architecture. As I walked up the steps of the plaza to the main entrance, I felt I had been transported to a 21st century version of one of the ancient hilltops of Rome.
Entry to The Getty Museum
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

Getty’s interest in art began as a method to shelter his growing wealth from taxes. It was a simple business solution – not a deep love for the art. He acquired European antiquities of pottery, furniture and tapestries. The thrill was to find quality items for a bargain price using the same principles he used in growing the oil business.

The wealthier he became, the more time and interest he gave to the purchase of art. He surrounded himself with art critics, brokers and dealers, and absorbed as much information as he could about the world of art. In his autobiography As I See It, he admits that he became an art addict:

“My use of drugs doesn’t go beyond the aspirin and antibiotic level. Yet, I am an apparently incurable art-collecting addict. The habitual narcotics user is said to have a monkey on his back. I sometimes feel as though I had several dozen gorillas riding on mine.”

A journey to the Getty Museum is best described by the joy and energy seen on the faces of the visitors. Many come to see the collections of art, but quickly become enthralled with the experience of walking around the buildings, gardens, sculptures and fountains. The visit is transformed into a restful walk and the museum campus appeared as one giant piece of art. Couples and families picnic on the grassy hillside and school children laugh and play on the grassy slopes of the garden. 

Visitors relax and stroll at The Getty Museum
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

In his later years, Getty was shamed by the movers and shakers of the art world to spend sizeable amounts of money on significant works. Although Getty had become an expatriate U.S. citizen, living in various places about Europe, he facilitated tours of his art collection at his Malibu estate, which is a different location than the current Getty Museum.

In 1958, Fortune magazine listed him as the richest man in the world, and he realized it was necessary to find a permanent home in Europe which would provide a secure location and a place to display some of the additional art he had acquired. In 1959, he purchased the estate of The Duke of Sutherland, Sutton Place, in Surrey, England. Other than brief travels in England and continental Europe, he stayed in Sutton Place for the remainder of his life.

In the late 1960s, with growing demand that he display more of his art collection, he bucked the art world and executed his own idea for a museum, a recreation of a Roman Villa, built adjacent to his former home in Malibu. The $17 million museum was the repository for art and artifacts worth over $200 million ($1 billion in 2013 dollars). A $55 million charitable trust supported the operation. The reviews of the controversial museum, which opened in 1974, were mixed, making Getty feel that he had not yet been embraced by the art world. He never made the trip from his English estate to see his pet project first-hand.
The Getty Villa in Malibu, California
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

Upon his death in June of 1976, the wills of his personal fortune and the Sarah Getty Trust (named for his mother) were read. The art world was rocked with the revelation that J. Paul Getty had bequeathed the bulk of his personal estate, over $660 million, to the Getty Museum. Overnight, the museum had become the wealthiest art institution in the world.  The intent of the $1.2 billion Sarah Getty Trust was to provide for future generations of the family, but both wills were contested and tied in litigation for years, due to the complex business interests and the abstract family tree created by Getty and his wives.

The visit began in the morning with an architectural walking tour led by one of the docents. I shared that I was an architect, which caused her to add to the end of her comments at each stop, “Does the architect have anything to add?” Each time I tried to respond with something that sounded halfway intelligent.

Impressionist gallery at The Getty Museum
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
After lunch at the restaurant with a view of the adjacent hillside neighborhoods, I visited the temporary exhibit “Overdrive,” which presented the Los Angeles architecture and urban design of the 20th century. I wandered the fountain plaza between museum buildings on the way to view the Van Gogh “Irises” painting and the other impressionist works. The building shapes and textures revealed themselves while I walked slowly outside. It was a veritable candy land of modern architecture.

The Getty Museum Courtyard
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

Once the litigation involving the Getty Trust was complete in 1982, the board members of the trust determined that a larger, new museum was necessary to support the collection and the ongoing acquisitions.

The facts surrounding the design and construction of the $1.3 billion Getty Center are staggering. It has been called the “project of the century” and a project “bigger than life.” The 742 acre site in the Santa Monica Mountains in Brentwood was purchased in 1983 for $25 million, and the board began a year-long process to select a design architect. A beginning list of 110 architects was eventually pared to three: Richard Meier, James Sterling, and Fumahiko Maki. Richard Meier, a modernist architect who had gained international recognition was the final selection. It was the commission of a lifetime, and it demanded the majority of Meier’s attention for the next thirteen years.

After a thorough investigation of the site, Meier decided to place the buildings on two intersecting ridges, one of which paralleled the freeway below. According to Meier, his buildings embraced the abstract and became forms in light, playing with volume and surface. He believes good design must have a timeless look and feel. Meier is a true modernist. His favorite architect was Le Corbusier, considered one of the fathers of modern architecture.

As I walked the plazas, balconies and stairs, many planned and unplanned vistas and nodes came into view around the corners and spaces between the campus buildings. At the extreme south end of the complex, I viewed a large, circular cactus garden, a symbolic exclamation point where the ocean breeze was stiff and the panoramic view displayed the freeway, the L.A. basin, and the ocean beyond.
South promontory - Cactus Garden
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

Two of the biggest design challenges to the museum design came from the community of Brentwood. Residents of the toney neighborhood had extreme concerns about the height and color of the proposed museum. No building was allowed to be 64 feet higher than the hilltop, and the nearby residents complained they did not want the color to be the stark white used by Meier on most of his projects. Meier’s solution was to use both travertine marble and enamel-coated aluminum panels of travertine color for the building surfaces. When the campus design was unveiled, Meier’s solution launched him to “rock star” status among the design world.

Construction began in 1989 and continued beyond the grand opening in December of 1997. For years the daily commuters on the freeway below watched the slow building progress. The mountaintop location was formidable, and created havoc with the construction due to the limited access. Steel, concrete, marble, and glass; all had to be transported up the narrow road on the steep mountainside.

Over 16,000 tons of travertine marble were quarried in Bagni di Tivoli, Italy, the same quarry used for the Coliseum in Rome and for the Colonnade at St. Peter’s at the Vatican. The marble was sliced and cut into 30” square panels, then shipped to California.

View of The Getty Museum looking northwest from south promontory
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

I touched both the rough and smooth travertine surfaces of the buildings, inspecting the layers of sea floor created over millions of years. It was a peek into the past, unlocked by the stone cutter. This was permanence – somewhat different than the temporal feel of  L.A.’s urban landscape.

Meier’s design ego has caused him to disagree with some decisions made by the museum board, most notably their decision to hire Robert Irwin to design a garden/park for the south end of the complex. Although Meier does not approve of the park design, he believes the total museum experience is a success, creating “order out of chaos.”
The Getty Museum Central Garden and Azalea Pool
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

The walk through the garden was a fitting way to end the day at the museum. I sat under the metal-sculptured trees, which were individual trellises for the crepe myrtle. There were smiles on the faces of young and old as they passed. Most had a peaceful, happy look, as if they knew this was a time of respite and a place to forget about the daily world below, a place to appreciate art and nature on the same day.

Robert Irwin, a modern artist, had accomplished very few gardens when asked to design the garden space at the Getty Center. The controversial garden, which included a pool with a maze of azaleas has become a favorite spot for museum visitors. The stream begins with a fountain at the edge of the entry plaza, and takes advantage of the natural south slope of the space between the Getty Research Institute and the Getty Museum buildings. The London Plane trees which line the stream create a micro-climate through which the public passes several times on the path to the azalea pool.

As I walked the plaza steps to board the funicular/tram and exited the museum, I realized that J. Paul Getty, a legendary tightwad and the world’s richest man, had finally opened up his money bags one last time. The giving gesture at his death was, in some way, a final attempt to be accepted by the art world. The campus and museum, an enclave of enlightenment and a space free to the public, is proof that his legacy will continue on much longer than his life.


Getty, J. Paul, autobiography, As I See It, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, 1976.
Lenzner, Robert, The Great Getty – The Life and Loves of J. PAUL GETTY – Richest Man in the World, New York, NY, Crown Publishers, 1985.

Panich, Paula, The California Garden – Robert Irwin still marvels at Getty Gardens 10 years later, Los Angeles Times, style section, July 24, 2008.

Video, Building the Getty Center, The Getty Museum, February 2, 2012:
Video, Richard Meier, The Getty Center, Web of Stories, December 23, 2008:
The Getty Museum – Architecture Tour, June 19, 2013.