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The Getty: A Museum-Piece Museum

With its angular and curved walls; isolated in his perch on the hill, the Getty Center attracts both for its collection, its beautiful views of Los Angeles and the incredible design which makes it one of the most impressive architectural achievements in the United States.

Text and photos: Edgar A. Cadena

Perched on the Santa Monica Mountains, beyond the scorched Mandeville Canyon and over the Bel Air haze, the curious white mass peeks out at the thousands of motorists who rush each day along the San Diego Freeway, better known as Interstate 405, in the city of Los Angeles.

With its gleaming walls suggesting a Solomonic Ivory Tower, the complex contrasts with the eternal blue-gray of the sky and the greenish-brown of the furrowed chaparral. The J. Paul Getty Museum, or simply The Getty, as it is most often called, is a modernist complex that seems to arise from the hillside. It frolics with the Californian sunlight, appearing snowy-white in the morning and fawn-colored in the afternoon.

This citadel was designed to house the art collections of the J. Paul Getty Trust. It consists of an impressive complex of angular buildings clad in travertine marble and metal, suggesting a splendid and serene futuristic villa. The complex includes buildings for the Getty Research Institute (GRI), the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, and the J. Paul Getty Trust.

An automated funicular goes from the parking lot and reception center at the bottom of the hill to the museum at the top, 900 feet above the adjacent highway. If the perennial haze allows, from the top of the hill it is possible to see not only the endless outline of the city, but also the mountains of San Bernardino and San Gabriel to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

The Museum itself consists of five two-story buildings connected by passages and walkways, all either open to the outdoors or featuring spectacular windows. Its multiple entrances give visitors the option to explore the collections chronologically or move in and out of the halls as they like.

The main catalog of the museum consists of European paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, and decorative arts from before the 20th century. Another important collection is the museum’s catalog of 19th and 20th century American, Asian, and European photography. Aside from the photography section, the museum does not include contemporary artists. Its catalog stops (with few exceptions) in 1900.

Among the works of art on permanent display, “The Irises” by Vincent van Gogh, “Arii Matamoe (The Royal End)” by Paul Gauguin, and “Portrait of a Beefeater” by Jacopo Pontormo, stand out. In addition to these collections, the Center includes outdoor sculptures on the terraces and gardens.

The Getty was designed by architect Richard Meier, who plotted it around the two natural ridges of the mountain. These two axes define the space while emphasizing the importance of the buildings. Along the eastern axis are the galleries and on the western axis, the administrative buildings. The architect emphasized the separation of the two grids using strong visual lines across the campus.

Apart from its buildings, the Getty Center has several gardens, fountains, and landscaped areas for public enjoyment, including a cactus garden at the South Promontory, fountains in the museum courtyard and the funicular station, and several shaded corners and vantage points offering spectacular views.

At the heart of the complex is the Central Garden, built on a natural ravine. It was designed by landscape architect Robert Irwin as a work of art that takes visitors through extraordinary sights, sounds and smells. Water plays an important role; a stream flows into the garden and seems to fall into a cave in the wall. The stream then filters down the slope, at first hidden by massive cubic rocks, revealing itself only by its sound. The stream descends under a leafy grove, repeatedly crossed by a meandering walkway. After gently crossing the square, the water cascades down about thirty feet from a stone wall to the pool. This pond, highlighted by an exquisite maze of azaleas, is surrounded by more gardens. More than 500 plant varieties are used in a selection that is constantly but gradually evolving.

With its angular and curved walls and isolated perch on the hill, the Getty Center attracts visitors for its collection, its beautiful views of Los Angeles, and its incredible design that makes it perhaps one of the most impressive architectural achievements in the United States. A whole museum-piece.

A Feared Museum

The Getty Museum is administered by the J. Paul Getty Trust. It has two locations: the Getty Center in Brentwood and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, both in Los Angeles, California. The museum at the Getty Center contains Western art dating from the Middle Ages to the present. The Getty Villa museum contains art from ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria.

The museum began as the personal art collection of oil magnate J. Paul Getty, who established the trust in 1953. At his death, Getty left most of his fortune to the trust, transforming it into the richest art institution in the world with an endowment currently estimated at US $5.6 billion.

Perhaps one of the most outstanding features of this museum is its intense and vigorous acquisition policy, backed by considerable financial support. Since its purchasing capacity is unlimited, the Getty museum is feared by other institutions. Several record prices on the art market have been set by purchases made by the Getty Museum.

The Getty in figures

Cost: The complex’s cost was projected at US $350 million. It is estimated that the final cost exceeded US $1.3 billion.

Construction: It took thirteen years and was completed in 1997.

Visitors: 1.3 billion a year (It is the most visited museum in the United States).

Front: Coated with 16,000 tons of travertine marble slabs, covering one million square feet. The marble was extracted from Bagni di Tivoli, Italy and required 100 transoceanic trips to move to California.

Slabs: The cover is based on square marble slabs that are about thirty inches across. Most wall elements and the floor have these dimensions.

Glass facade: 164.700 square feet.

Aluminum panels: 40,000 units

Central Garden: It covers an area of more than 134,000 square feet.