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ART : COMMENTARY : Lifting the Veil : Richard Meier's design for the Getty Center will at last put a unified face on a far-flung and sometimes confusing art empire

October 27, 1991|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic.

In fact, not completely keeping track seems to be precisely the way the Getty Trust wanted it. Chairman Harold Williams has said that as new programs were being conceived and established, he wanted each to have a certain independence--an individuality that would be shaped by the professional talents of the different program chiefs, and that wouldn't be tamped down by any feeling, real or imagined, that they were under the Omnipotent Thumb of an All-Seeing, All-Knowing Getty Trust.

So--you should pardon the expression--Williams gave them some space.

Those programs have now been up and running for a number of years. Generally speaking, the result has been a slightly schizoid situation in which not one Getty, but two, have been loose in the world. There's the "visible Getty," which largely means the art museum and that huge pile of money; and then there's the "invisible Getty," which is everything else. The public knows something of the visible Getty, and specialists know fragments of the invisible Getty; but outside the upper echelons of the trust, it's doubtful anyone really has a grasp of the whole.

The unveiling of the design for the Getty Center is the first step in merging the "invisible" into the "visible." Uniting most of the Getty Trust's activities into a single locale, the center will give coherent shape to the currently Balkanized institution.

In effect, Getty Center architect Richard Meier was charged with designing a functional group of buildings, but he also had to craft an expressive image that would register in the public mind. If the scheme he has delivered cannot, alas, be said to incite the imagination in startlingly provocative ways, it surely creates a sharp profile for the Getty.

Even before the plans were conceived, drawn and assembled in the form of a scale model, a popular metaphor began to emerge for the new Getty Center. It's easy to see why "An Acropolis for Los Angeles" would fix in the mind. Reasons abound for that classical Greek cluster of temples overlooking Athens to emerge as precedent.

On the simplest level there's the Getty Center's hilltop site, with its extraordinary vistas stretching from the mountains to the ocean in the Mediterranean climate of Southern California. As the Acropolis lifts the Parthenon, the Erechtheum and the Propylaea aloft on a higher plane--both physically and metaphorically--so the proposed complex of buildings is set above the metropolitan horizon of Los Angeles.

Second, as an internationally resonant cultural powerhouse, the Getty looms large as a symbol of authority. Its image might be vague, but it's still potent.

Then there is the current Getty Museum in Malibu, designed in the manner of a luxurious classical villa whose distinctly Roman contours evolved from Greek precedents. The villa houses, among much else, an increasingly exceptional array of classical antiquities--a rarity for a museum in the United States. Indeed, when the new Getty Center is finished in Brentwood, the antiquities will remain in the Malibu building, thus establishing the only museum of Greek and Roman art in the nation.

And there's more. At the heart of the Brentwood design is an all-new Getty Museum, housed in a cluster of five pavilions. The ancient Mediterranean is in fact recalled by the very idea of a museum, a specifically Western European idea whose name derives from the Greek--\o7 mouseion\f7 , or place for the Muses--and whose reach has been global.

As places to collect and study examples of natural and cultural history, museums were born of the 18th-Century Enlightenment and took shape at the first stirrings of the modern era. With increasing clarity, they spoke of a central tenet of what would make the modern world a place different from any other.

What made "the modern world" modern was not just its emerging commitment to the new. Modernity was also characterized by a powerful, related awareness of progress--of just how far civilization had come over the centuries, and of how "the new" was being erected on a firm foundation established by classical antiquity.

Not by accident has Neoclassical architecture been the most common building style for museums. In these modernized Greek or Roman temples, where the "forward march" of natural and cultural evolution would be enshrined, the perceived greatness of the present is framed by the established greatness of the past.

Therefore, last but not least in the arrival of acropolis as ruling metaphor for the Getty Center, there is its chosen architect. Richard Meier is a Modernist--even a High Modernist--in what many regard a Postmodern world. He's even built an acropolis before: Meier has used that term to describe the raised podium and hilltop location of his widely acclaimed Athenaeum in New Harmony, Ind., completed in 1980.

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