Now that I'm back from my California Museumpalooza (recaps coming soon!), I want to take a few minutes to brag on the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Since the Getty Museum is technically split into two parts, the main Getty Center and the Getty Villa further west, I'm going to clarify that I'm focusing on the Getty Center for the time being.
The Getty Center has an outstanding collection of pre-20th century European paintings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, and photographs from 19th-20th century America, Asia and Europe. And I'll delve deeper to that collection in future posts, but what I really want to focus on right now is the center's architecture.
Because the Getty Center is arguably one of the most stunning buildings I've ever visited.
Thanks to my architecture tour of the facility, I learned that the Getty Center officially opened to the public in 1997, twenty years ago this December. It was created to house part of the massive art collection of J. Paul Getty, noted oil man and one of the wealthiest men in the world as of 1956. The center is also home to the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation and the J. Paul Getty Trust.
The art takes up five of the buildings at the Getty, with four buildings dedicated to the permanent collection and part of a fifth containing temporary exhibitions. (While I was visiting, it contained an interesting exhibit on French draftsman and sculptor, Edme Bouchardon.) Visitors usually arrive at the center via a tram located in the arrival plaza, to better accommodate the steep California hillside.
THE GETTY GRID
The Getty Center was designed by architect Richard Meier, who became the youngest architect to ever win the Pritzker Architecture Prize shortly before receiving the commission to work on this complex.
One of Meier's goals with the Getty was to create a harmonious blend of landscape and building. To that end, he took advantage of two naturally-occurring ridges in the California hillside and laid two grids along these axes, along which the entire complex can be navigated – the galleries line up along one axis and the administrative buildings along the other. These axes are offset by 22.5 degrees, the same angle of divergence reflected in the ridges that surround the center.
The two grids that Meier imposed upon the Getty Center are composed of smaller blocks of space measuring 30-inches square. All the architectural "building blocks" of the Getty Center, from floor tiles to windows, either measure 30x30 exactly, or come in a larger or smaller variation of this size (60x60 inches, or 15x15 inches respectively). This ensured that every aspect of the facility was built at a consistent, and human, scale.
Our architecture tour guide, Rona, proved this point by asking one of our tour members to stand against one of the Getty's aluminum pillars so the rest of the group could guess his height. Measuring against the pillar, the man was a little over two tiles' tall – so the group guessed his height was six feet. This guess was correct, and we had been able to tell because the height of the two tiles was exactly five feet.
The Getty Center is built out of concrete and steel covered in one of two types of materials: aluminum coated with a thick liquid polymer, and travertine limestone.
The travertine at the Getty was originally quarried just outside of Rome, from the same quarry ancient Romans used for the Roman Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain. When the Getty's architects announced that they were initially looking for a more natural, rougher surface for the facility than the smooth white rock, the owner of the quarry constructed a specialized guillotine that split the limestone slabs along their natural fault lines, revealing the natural roughness of their interior.
The architects were sold on the look and the texture, and it took 100 trips by barge (through the Panama Canal) to bring over 300,000 pieces of individual stone overseas from Italy to complete the center.
Meier's use of liquid-polymer-coated aluminum presented a strong contrast to the travertine. The metal provided him with a material that was less heavy and imposing than the rock, and more capable of producing curved shapes that would play well against the heavy lines of the limestone walls. In fact, the aluminum's flexibility can best be seen in the center's famous "piano curve", pictured below.
This is not to say that the strong lines of the travertine didn't have their use as well – Meier incorporated limestone arches and borders throughout the complex as a way to "frame" many of the vistas of the surrounding hillsides, which emphasize the Getty's impressive views as works of art in their own right. Perched on a hill 900 feet about I-405, it's fair to say that the center offers some of the best views around.
WATER AND SUSTAINABILITY
The central courtyard of the Getty Center is the only area of the complex that breaks with Meier's strict travertine/aluminum rule. The rocks in Boulder Fountain are pieces of granite, over 100 million years old, quarried from the Sierra Nevada mountains in northern California – the heart of gold rush country.
But in addition to travertine and aluminum, another key feature of the Getty Center's architecture is water, as fountains and pools abound throughout the complex. In fact, the Getty has access to almost a million gallons of water in the hill beneath its helipad, which allows California's fire-fighting helicopters to land at the center and refill their tanks in under 40 seconds.
But just because the Getty has a lot of water in a historically drought-stricken state doesn't mean it's not sustainably used. In fact, the Getty Center was the first building in the U.S. to achieve silver-level LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environment Design) certified status from the U.S. Green Building Council, which is one of the highest certifications of energy efficiency a building can receive.
The Getty Center's sustainability efforts have resulted in a 33 percent reduction of irrigation water and a 10 percent reduction in energy since 2001, leading to a total savings of $500,000 per year. The complex recycles half of its total waste every year, and engages in several other activities to remain as energy efficient as possible – including renting a herd of goats every spring to do their landscaping / help clear brush and reduce fire damage on the hillside.
All in all, the Getty Center is a beautiful and fascinating building. It takes a lot (seriously, a lot) for a museum to draw my attention away from the collection inside, but wandering through the Getty's grounds (and its Robert Irwin-designed garden) was just as enriching and satisfying an experience as the enjoyment I had when I (finally) ducked inside to roam their art-filled galleries.