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Stronghold of the Arts Takes Shape Above City : Culture: The $733-million Getty Center, about half complete, has sparked a flurry of debate. Local media will get a look at what the fuss is all about at an open house this week.

October 10, 1994|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN and DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

To the wonderment and, no doubt, perplexity of hundreds of thousands of daily commuters, it rises in Sepulveda Pass like a 14th-Century mountaintop stronghold.

Sprawling along a ridge line high above the San Diego Freeway, the emerging structure of box-like buildings and interlocking walls presents a portentous visage of money and power.

Up to 800 workers at a time, like the craftsman of a medieval city, stride its scaffolds laying Italian marble, scurry over its Olympian terraces planting trees by the thousand and scale its three-quarter-mile elevated causeway laying track for the tram that will someday connect this enclave on the hill to the world below.

Without so much as a sign to identify their purpose, they could as easily be erecting a hotel for the unconscionably rich or a retreat for an order of ascetic monks.

Neither commercial nor reclusive motives, however, are behind one of the largest construction projects under way in the western United States. The emerging wall of marble is to be a stronghold of the arts: the future home of the world's most formidable private arts institution, the J. Paul Getty Trust.

Already 10 years in the making--and still three years from its scheduled 1997 opening--the $733-million Getty Center is now about half completed, a milestone that has prompted Getty officials to conduct an open house this week.

The informal tour Thursday will give the local news media a look inside the 110-acre college-like campus that will consolidate the Getty's Malibu museum with the trust's art history, education and conservation programs, now in rented quarters in Santa Monica and Marina del Rey.

The scale and ambition of New York architect Richard Meier's project have touched off a flurry of debate.

While a minority of critics decry the center's provocative location and massive profile, no one denies that the Getty Center has already established itself as the Los Angeles cultural landmark to eclipse all others.

"If God had the money, this is perhaps what he would do," said the prickly Los Angeles design critic Sam Hall Kaplan, who was prepared to hate Meier's architectural statement but found he couldn't.

"The statement . . . is that this is a cultural institution here for the ages, not a passing indulgence, not a deconstructionist exercise by yet another narcissistic architect, of which there are many."

Less sanguine observers have faulted the center as elitist, remote and confusing, comparing it to the Getty Trust itself.

"Looking up from the freeway below, motorists will see a series of mostly windowless marble cliffs, some as high as 120 feet above the slopes from which they spring," critic Leon Whiteson wrote in The Times.

Noting that most of the criticism comes from the East, Kaplan said he detects a hidden envy that Los Angeles, and not New York, has the Getty, whose ambition, as New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger concedes, is "to spring full-blown from the brow of this hill in Brentwood as the world's largest, richest, most comprehensive and most ambitious institution in the visual arts."

Local commentators, indeed, can hardly restrain their expectation that the consolidated prestige of the Getty will elevate Los Angeles to the cultural status of New York and Paris.

"It will become one of the must-visits for anyone who has traveled," said Los Angeles city Planning Director Con Howe. "Anyone will consider it as important as the Louvre or the National Gallery."

Howe, formerly a planner in New York City, said the Getty Center will be different from other great museums like the Metropolitan or the Pompidou because Los Angeles is a different kind of city from New York or Paris.

Elaborating on that theme, architect David Martin said freeways have replaced rivers and grand boulevards as travel arteries.

"I think it's important for Los Angeles to have it along the freeway," Martin said. "It reminds all of the million or so people who drive it every day that there is a part of our culture that has to do with art and fineness and education.

"I don't think that's a bad idea to have in everybody's face every day," he said.

The quintessential Los Angeles creation, the Getty Center may become the world's only important urban museum that will never be "discovered" by a tourist rambling the byways of a strange city.

Visitors, who may need reservations to get in, will ride a Euro-style tramway from a six-level underground garage beside Sepulveda Boulevard to a formal transit stop atop the hill.

From there, the 700 Getty employees will angle north toward the working end of the institution containing administrative offices and the bulk of the Getty's other arts programs.

The hilltop complex will also feature a cafe, a restaurant, a 450-seat auditorium, gardens, fountains and panoramic views of the mountains, the Pacific and the city skyline.

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