The Getty Museum

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – September 29, 1997

A City on a Hill

The new Getty Center is a triumph of nineteenth-century ambition.

One bright weekend afternoon earlier this year, on a mountaintop in Brentwood, the architect Richard Meier—tall, commanding, magnificently white-haired—was giving a pre-opening tour of  his new Getty Center to a few billionaires he knows. (During the past six months, the private pre-opening Getty tour has become an in-the-know V.I.P. perk, the backstage pass of the beau monde.) Aside from Meier, who has spent a week or two every month for the last ten years in a funky, rat-infested house on the construction site, only one member of the group was a local—David Geffen, the entertainment mogul. The group had wandered over acres of gorgeous Italian stone, through impeccable thirty-five-foot-high galleries, and past dozens of glass-walled scholars’ offices with dumbfounding Pacific Ocean views, when, as Meier tells it, Geffen suddenly blurted, “This is too good for Los Angeles.” He went on to explain, “I love it, but people here won’t appreciate it. There’s nothing else here that can stand up to this. Look around—everything’s transitory. And this is solid. This is permanent.”

John Walsh, the vigorous, Waspy director of the Getty Museum, tries to be indulgent of reactions like that. “There are people around here who are nostalgic about the feckless, charming, hedonist Los Angeles of the twenties and thirties,” he says. “But Los Angeles is putting a kind of support underneath the cultural structure that was built hastily out of recycled and sometimes cheap parts over its first hundred or so years. We’re part of that. This is a process of growing up.”

New York passed through its own boomtown phase more than a century ago. The Metropolitan Museum opened at its current site in 1880, surrounded protectively by Central Park, across Fifth Avenue from what was shaping up to be the city’s gentry neighborhood. The Met’s expansion was underwritten by the Gettys of that era. Los Angeles has just come through half a century of fantastic growth, and now the Getty Center is opening across the San Diego Freeway from that city’s gentry neighborhood, atop a hill near the intersection of two of L.A.’s busiest highways, the 10 and the 405, surrounded protectively by its own square mile of nature.

The last construction project in Los Angeles to get so much attention was Aaron Spelling’s fifty-six-thousand-five-hundred-square-foot château, which he built for almost fifty million dollars in Holmby Hills, back in 1991. The vast pseudo-Norman home of the man who produced “Fantasy Island,” “The Love Boat,” and Tori Spelling is, of course,

an irresistible symbol of Geffen’s default L.A.: profligate, kitschy, stage-set swank in the land without taste. The Getty, which will have cost around a billion dollars (or twenty Spelling Units) by the time it opens officially, in December, is both extreme and very pretty, like so much in Southern California. But, curiously, the Getty’s extremism is of a very old-fashioned kind: it’s the well-meaning arrogance of  liberal-minded patricians and missionaries. Unlike the Spelling house, the Getty actually intends to be a symbol: it means to represent a new and improved L.A.—tasteful, civilizing, and irreproachable, a post-Venturian, post-perverse L.A. The pristine headquarters that I.  M. Pei designed for the Creative Artists Agency in Beverly Hills a few years ago derived from a similar hunger for respect, for class. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the new Getty as nothing more than a monumental affectation; it’s simply too anomalous, too fine, too astonishing.

Among people in the museum and the fine-arts world, the name Getty had for years been considered ludicrous and distasteful. J. Paul Getty was a capitalist caricature, reclusive and mean. When, in the early seventies, he built a replica of the Villa dei Papiri in Malibu to house his art collection, the high-culture establishment concluded that he was also a vulgarian crackpot. Back then, before architectural postmodernism had made columns and pediments chic, he was the Aaron Spelling of his day, Fortune 500 division.

Getty died in 1976, and in his will left four million shares of Getty Oil stock to the museum, which was run by the J. Paul Getty Trust. When the estate was settled six years later, the trust inherited $1.2 billion, and the art world’s bemused disrespect hardened into envy, resentment, fear, and loathing. “When I came here, we had no credibility,” says Harold Williams, who had been chairman of the Securities Exchange Commission before becoming the first president of the Getty Trust, in 1981. “We were upstarts with a hell of a lot of money. There was a concern we were really going to mess things up.” The chief concern was that the Getty Trust, with its monstrously deep pockets and a determination to build a world-class museum collection, would overpay for art. As it happened, 1982 was an excellent moment to inherit $1.2 billion; thanks to the bull market that began that year and hasn’t ended yet, the trust now has its brand-new billion-dollar campus, more than a billion dollars’ worth of art, and a $4.3-billion endowment—a sum almost six times as big as the Metropolitan Museum’s.

Getty was both terse and vague about the purposes of the trust he established before his death. So Williams and his colleagues not only were put in charge of an enormous sum of money at a time of general civic retrenchment but were also given the opportunity to dream up acceptable ways of spending the money—to invent a huge new institution as they were constructing it. Meier compares the enterprise with Thomas Jefferson’s building of the University of  Virginia two centuries ago. In 1983 and 1984, all the important Getty dice were cast: Walsh was recruited from Boston’s Museum of  Fine Arts; five independent Getty institutes (devoted to research, conservation, education, information, and museum management) and a grant program were established; a seven-hundred-and-forty-two-acre site was assembled (for only twenty million dollars); and Richard Meier, one of the most illustrious architects of his generation, was hired to design the whole thing.

Since the nineteen-sixties, undertakings of such scale, let alone grandeur, have been unfashionable and unaffordable in this country. It has been left to parvenus in the Middle East and in Southeast Asia—oligarchs enriched by companies like Getty Oil—to create giant cultural institutions out of nothing. Indeed, with dead-rich-white-male values besieged in America, the particular philanthropic hubris of the Getty seems impossibly, thrillingly nineteenth century: a new first-rate museum of old European art and antiquities, plus an expansive scholarly facility, both of them built in fifteen years by a major architect living among a thousand construction workers, and both lavishly underwritten without a single fund-raising gala.

Onward and upward, never breaking a sweat: such was the ideal course of  Western civilization, before the populist, pluralist late twentieth century interrupted. Walsh, after Williams the most influential person at the Getty, is cast to type: tall, handsome, smart, ironic, smooth. (Williams, the older of the two, is more like Yoda: rumpled and courtly, but surprisingly tough-minded.) Last spring, when parts of the complex were still construction sites, Walsh would wear his own special hard hat, a pith helmet covered with brown rattan, as he roamed the hilltop. One day, striding into a new Renaissance-sculpture gallery, and brushing past a fifteenth-century bust of a saint submerged in Styrofoam pellets in a plastic shipping crate, he spotted a statue of Neptune freshly installed. “Oh!” he said. “The first guy is down!”

Walsh explains, “Because of the accident”—the accident of Getty’s having endowed an arts trust with a fortune—“we’ve been able to do something very big, very fast.” The Getty had a hundred and ten million dollars to spend on art and archival material in 1996 alone, which is many times what other large museums spend. The collections of antiquities, decorative arts, manuscripts, and photography are suddenly among the finest anywhere. The paintings and sculptures are more than respectable. “We have been buying many of the best Renaissance and Baroque sculptures on the market for the last twelve years,” Walsh says, and many of them haven’t yet been exhibited. “When it opens, it’s going to be a jolt.” Among the museum’s pictures are Michelangelo’s “The Holy Family with Infant St. John the Baptist,” a couple of  Rembrandts, a Monet haystack, Cézanne’s “Still-Life with Apples,” and “Christ’s Entrance Into Brussels in 1889,” by James Ensor.

But, unlike most museum directors, who are obliged to be promiscuous marketers, Walsh can afford to remain above it all—an old-fashioned aesthetic purist. At a press luncheon in New York earlier this summer, he neglected to mention one of his most costly acquisitions, van Gogh’s “Irises.” (He bought it in 1991, reportedly for close to fifty-four million dollars.) Nor did he mention it during the tour of the new museum I made with him, and when I asked about it he said, a little grudgingly, “Oh, it’s going to be in that big room—with the Ensor.” Williams says, “We’ll leave the blockbusters to the other museums.”

But if the Getty’s billions bring with them some holier-than-thou smugness, so what? In an era when PBS is hawking “Lord of the Dance” videos to recruit new members and the Guggenheim attaches sponsors like Hugo Boss to its shows, the Getty is holier than they are. The Getty’s Conservation Institute is preserving Buddhist grottoes in China, footprints of prehistoric people in Tanzania, and a Brancusi sculpture in Romania. Its Research Institute, having amassed more than seven hundred thousand books, is on its way to becoming the world’s largest fine-arts library. “I thought I’d died and gone to Heaven,” says Lynn O’Leary-Archer, the associate director of the Research Institute, when she saw a new refrigerated storage room she’d been given just to hold photographic negatives. The Conservation Institute also has a climate-controlled room, designed especially for antique clocks. “We have a lot of clocks,” Walsh says with a happy shrug. At the no-frills end of a philistine century, Walsh and the directors of all the institutes made up wish lists, and most of those wishes were granted.

 This is just how the future was supposed to be. From the parking garage at the bottom of the hill, it’s a winding five-minute ascent on robot tram cars, past groves of California live oak and rusticated stone ramparts, to the Getty Center itself. The combination of microprocessed Epcot efficiency, permanently sunny panoramas, and Meier’s highly classicized modernism is like a dream, or a “Star Trek” episode about Periclean Athens in a parallel universe.

The serenity is intense. A grand utopian peacefulness was the intent, and the process of the designing and the building was accordingly slow and steady. When Williams phoned Meier, in 1984, to tell him he had the job, Williams asked, according to the architect, “Can you finish it in three years?” In fact, it was seven years before the final design was unveiled. During his first year on the project, he, Walsh, Williams, and others from the Getty went on several world tours in which they visited libraries and research centers and, in southern Europe, wandered together through gardens and citadels, village squares and hill towns, seeking inspiration.

And so the dense, complicated cluster of Getty structures—there are eleven, occupying a hundred and twenty-four acres—is reminiscent, in its spick-and-span abstract way, of some Old World settlement. Given the traditionalism of the Getty’s collection, the hilltop site, and the Southern California climate, the Mediterranean model was irresistible. There are six non-museum buildings, which are clad mainly in Meier’s familiar white enamel-covered aluminum panels (off-white was his concession to the client and the neighbors), but the five-building museum complex is covered mainly in travertine from a quarry near Tivoli, north of Rome. Over the past two decades, it has become standard to paste thin stone veneers on high-rise office towers, as a kind of attenuated allusion to prewar architecture—class on the cheap. At the Getty there are three hundred thousand substantial chunks of travertine, most of them two-and-a-half-feet square and almost three inches thick. No wonder the original three-hundred-million-dollar construction budget doubled, and finally tripled.

Big modernist buildings, even great ones, are monomaniacal: their modernism consists in a machined-looking repetitiveness, and the effect can be oppressive. Any compound designed and built all at once—visit the Microsoft campuses in Redmond sometime—tends to be dreary. At the Getty Center, Meier has impressively avoided the problem. The buildings all have a strong family resemblance in scale and form and materials, but they are not clones. The center also proves, by counter-example, that the terrible thing about most postwar modernism was not the style but the budgets (too small) and the scale (too big).

Maybe because Meier designed the Getty just as the influence of postmodernism was waning, he was more open to its salutary influences. Postmodernism’s most useful contributions have been to urban planning rather than to architecture: more than fetishizing antique styles, “new urbanism” regards the scale and the density of old towns as fundamental. And so the Getty Center, with its several piazzas and steps and odd angles, is an apt microcosmic simulacrum of  Western civilization as well as its repository. There are quirks built in—moments of serendipity and pleasure. Connecting the separate museum pavilions are outdoor bridges and balconies that provide for sunny, breezy respites; this alone will make the Getty the pleasantest art museum on the planet. A brook runs a hundred yards downhill through the three-acre central garden to a reflecting pool. A smooth travertine wall is interrupted by a single cleft-cut block; conversely, a rough cleft-cut wall is punctuated by a couple of perfectly smooth pieces. Boulders are plopped in the fountain in the museum’s central piazza. “It surprised me,” John Walsh says of Meier’s flecks of irrationalism, of fun. “You do not think of this artist as playful.” In the center of the strictly off-white Getty Center, right between a tram station and a restaurant, sobersided Richard Meier has put a lavender steel trellis, color-coded for wisteria. “A whimsy,” he says, smiling.

Entering the Getty galleries is a bit disorienting, like walking into eighteenth-century rooms in the eighteenth century—they’re obviously brand-new but feel deeply old-fashioned. The walls are covered in oak panelling, elaborately tinted plaster, damask. The gallery spaces are traditional: high, windowless cubes, with upper walls canting inward and skylights equipped with computer-controlled louvres. After decades of SoHo loft renovations and Musées d’Orsay, we’re used to inhabiting blond modernist interiors implanted within grand nineteenth-century shells. In the Getty galleries, that pattern is reversed: from within the Getty’s old and faux-old rooms, one can glimpse in the distance bits of the grand new blond modernist shell that contains them. This experience of discontinuity is a fresh one—maybe a twenty-first-century one.

 The weave of new and old turns out to be pleasantly strange, but it is the result of a decade of struggle, as well as collaboration, among the people creating the Getty. According to acquaintances of  both men, Harold Williams and John Walsh have never been especially close. Walsh is thrilled with his new museum, but when I asked him in June if  he was excited by the prospect of  living Williams’s grand Getty dream—curators and historians and conservators and pedagogues brilliantly commingling—he smiled thinly, looked away, and said, “In theory.”

The occasional conflicts between Walsh and Richard Meier were more explicit and ideological. Both are ruddy, bespectacled Ivy Leaguers of strong convictions. Both are aesthetic conservatives, but while Meier’s golden age is the nineteen-twenties and thirties, Walsh is very much a pre-twentieth-century man. As Michael Palladino, Meier’s younger partner, who has worked on the Getty project since the beginning, puts it, “We like terraces, curves, and openness. But for this director and for this collection that wouldn’t work.” Williams and the trust hired Meier, as he had hired Walsh, but when disagreements arose he tended to side with Walsh. The architect says that his relationship with Walsh “is like a marriage, with its ups and downs,” and he laughs. Walsh buys the marital analogy: “It’s true. It’s true. We gingerly approached some of the potentially divisive subjects.”

Meier accommodated Walsh’s insistence, for example, on picture galleries lit only from the top. But Meier says he finally couldn’t accommodate Walsh’s desire for “period rooms that looked like period rooms—I was not the person to do it, and I would not do it.” As a result, in the late eighties Walsh hired the architect Thierry Despont, an eclectic classicist, to design the interiors of the fourteen decorative-arts galleries, four of which have panelling from actual eighteenth-century rooms. And three years ago, with Walsh and Meier continuing to clash over the interiors, Despont was given the job of choosing the finishes and decorative details for all the gallery interiors.

“I mean, it wasn’t going to be love at first sight,” Despont told me over coffee in his Tribeca office. “Did he welcome me with open arms? No. Obviously, Richard’s idea was to keep it as white as he could. Neither the museum nor I personally thought that was the best way.” Despont, who has just finished Bill Gates’s extravagant new house in Seattle, said he became a kind of middleman negotiating between the museum director’s traditionalism and the building architect’s modernism. “Frankly, when I came in, I think John and Richard were quite far apart,” he told me. “I pulled both sides together.” He said he persuaded Walsh, for instance, that chair rails and cornices would be gratuitously literal. “I enjoyed arguing with Richard,” Despont went on. “I have my idiosyncrasies, and he has his. In the end, it is Richard’s opus. He has the last word.”

Not really. Meier’s contract stipulates that his designs must meet Walsh’s requirements as a curator. As Meier explained to me one day over lunch at his extremely white loft offices on Tenth Avenue, “I thought I could convince John about my view of the world. But I guess that was somewhat naïve, because John has maintained his view. Some of the painting galleries have fabric on the walls.” Meier sounds appalled. “I don’t like fabric—I’ve never liked fabric on the wall. John wants fabric on the wall, he got fabric on the wall.”

Meier’s other main antagonist has been Robert Irwin, the San Diego artist whom Williams hired in 1992 to design the elaborate central garden, which will lie on a slope between the museum and the Research Institute. Meier regarded the garden as his prerogative. The client, however, wanted something more Southern Californian than Meier seemed likely to provide. Williams explains that he “wanted it to be an artistic event unto itself,” and that Irwin represents “a significantly different attitude toward art from Richard. It’s not as disciplined. It’s more alive.” Irwin’s garden will include a waterfall, a floating maze of azaleas, a canopy of  London plane trees and crape myrtle, and five hundred flowering plants. “Richard must have given you an earful on Irwin,” Michael Palladino said to me. “If you put two artists together and ask them to paint on the same canvas, there are going to be problems.”

When it comes to defending the Getty Center against outside criticism, however, Williams, Walsh, and Meier maintain a united front. In emphatically multicultural Los Angeles, where the freeways have signs directing motorists to a Museum of  Tolerance, the Getty Center is routinely derided as élitist. By élitist, the critics seem to mean that it is physically very grand, that you can’t park right at the front door, and that the collection consists overwhelmingly of works from the European premodern canon. The fact that Meier is a New Yorker and Despont is French probably adds to the sense of élitism. Although a city bus stops at the museum, there is parking space for only twelve hundred automobiles, and each parking space requires a reservation. About this crime against the car-loving people of  Los Angeles, Walsh says, “We want to make a place that has a kind of unforgettable intimacy that’s peaceful. And it can’t be peaceful if it’s overcrowded.” The élitism charge, Meier says, “is a straw man, a false polemic.”

Frank Gehry, the quintessentially L.A. architectural genius, celebrated for radical shapes and materials, has been among the most hyperbolic polemicists. “Williams spent one billion dollars on that hill, and he ignored Los Angeles,” he told a reporter. “It would take him six lifetimes to undo the damage that that one gesture will do to the fabric of Los Angeles.” Gehry had failed even to get short-listed for the Getty Center, and I asked Harold Williams if he thought his critique was sour grapes. “Sure,” he said, smiling. He added, “Frank sent me a very apologetic letter.”

Given the attacks, it’s ironic that the place is so reflexively P.C. in so many ways. Of the five program directors whom the Getty Center flew to New York this summer for a press lunch, Walsh was the only American-born male. At the lunch, the director of the Education Institute declared that a major mission was to convince businesspeople of  “the value of arts education to workforce readiness.” She and the Information Institute director loaded their speeches with phrases such as “community-networking initiative” and “consensus building.” The Research Institute has sponsored a seminar on the legacy of the Black Panthers and its P.R. material refers to the South Central riots as “the Los Angeles rebellion” and “the April 1992 uprising.” Even the museum is irredeemably Californian. When some members of the curatorial staff felt traumatized by the move from Malibu to Brentwood, Walsh says, special “listeners” were recruited and workshops organized to help the staff members feel better.

 The Getty Center should make Angelenos in general feel a little better, in part by making Los Angeles seem more like a real city. To begin with, there’s the view: from the old downtown to Century City and over to the Hollywood Hills and on to the ocean, this is one of the rare local spots from which a person can survey the whole megalopolis. More obviously, the Getty Center will enable culturally ambitious citizens to weather the Woody Allen jokes. “I grew up in Los Angeles at a time when the only art that was around was Gainsborough’s ‘Blue Boy,’ at the Huntington,” Harold Williams said when I asked about his arts background. “It’s time we began to think of Los Angeles as something different from earthquakes and fires and Tinseltown.” (Tinseltown has been quite pointedly kept out of the Getty Center, which doesn’t need its money and doesn’t want its glamour: the only Hollywood trustee is a little-known Disney public-relations executive.)

“I think the Getty Center is going to change what actually happens and what appears to happen in Los Angeles,” John Walsh says. “I think it will make it easier for serious people to persuade themselves they might come and live in Los Angeles. It will bring tourists here, and that will change the caricatured view of  Los Angeles.”

Of course, Disneyland and Sunset Boulevard and Rodeo Drive still dominate the brand image. It will take decades for the Getty Center to give L.A. the full measure of upper-middle-brow respect that Williams and Walsh and Meier want. But, having spent the last fifteen years getting this far, all of them are focussed on the long view, although their moods seem bittersweet. Three weeks after the center opens, Harold Williams will retire. Meier is down to the very last tweaks and fixes. “I’m happy and I’m sad,” he says. “I don’t know anymore what I expected. Once in a while, something gets planted while I’m in New York, and it’s ‘God, that’s wrong—I don’t know how that got by me.’ Even if it’s just this patch of ground cover. That’s there forever.” As for the interior décor, such as the hated damask walls, he says, “Those are things that can change. In ten years, someone could come in and say no.” That might happen, since it doesn’t sound as if  Walsh is permanently ensconced. Because of rumors that he has considered leaving for a big job at an East Coast museum, I asked him how long he planned to stay at the Getty. He laughed, then said, “I’d love to be here for  .  .  .  a time—to operate this amazing machine that we’ve built. This is only a dozen years out. We have centuries ahead of us. Centuries.” ©