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A Gardener's Getty

Sunny, expansive grounds filled with exotic plants used in different ways provide framework for new art center.

December 14, 1997|ROBERT SMAUS | Times Garden Editor

There are treasures without, as well as within, the glistening new Getty Center.

For gardeners and garden lovers, the center is a terraced marvel, full of fascinating plants used in provocative ways.

From some gardens, you can look down into others to discover a palm canyon or a geometric planting of cactus and succulents. From others, you can look up to see bougainvilleas or jasmine cascading from a garden above.

There are choice specimen trees--some quite rare--and clever, playful fountains, streams and waterfalls.

Particularly handsome and appropriate plants grow throughout the landscape design.

There are grand avenues and groves of trees, like camphors and California peppers, tabebuias and palo verdes, and shady bosques where visitors can quietly sip a

cappuccino under London plane trees or dine under native oaks that look as if they've been growing here for years.

At the center of it all is artist Robert Irwin's sculptural Central Garden, half artwork, half garden, full of visual treats, like the maze-like azalea hedge that seems to float on a quiet pool.

Irwin's hedge, his steel-lined paths and the amazing, conical trellises for bougainvilleas take full advantage of garden conventions, but in a way that casts them in a very different light.

Those who fondly remember the estate-like gardens at the Getty Museum at the Malibu villa will find the new center's landscape quite different--sunnier, more expansive and much more graphic.

The center thinks of itself as a campus and, like any proper university grounds, the landscaping--which makes up about three-quarters of the 24-acre building site and is surrounded by 600 acres of native plantings and managed chaparral--is a mix of big, open spaces and peaceful corners.

Most visitors will come to see the new J. Paul Getty Museum, but it is only one part of this complex of buildings and gardens. The Research Institute, the Conservation Institute, the Information Institute, the Education Institute with its 450-seat auditorium and the Grant Program make up the other parts.

Some of the individual gardens are public and some are not, but most can be seen, if not visited, thanks to the hillside location.

A striking example can be found near the auditorium, between linear beds of clipped Spanish lavender and jasmine and beside a gnarled old Erythrina bidwillii. There a dark canyon between buildings cannot be visited but can be looked down upon.

According to landscape architect Laurie Olin, for this secluded spot "we wanted plants that looked good from above." Inspired by a trip to the nearby Robinson Gardens' palm grove, he choose spindly kentia palms and tree ferns for this little sliver of a garden. Their fronds look splendid from above.

The hilltop site also makes for some very spectacular views, perhaps the best in Southern California, and many of the little terraces take full advantage of this fact.

One terrace off the upper floors of the museum offers a dizzying view of downtown Los Angeles, so the bed there is a mass planting of the city flower, the bird of paradise.

Creeping around the bird of paradise is common mint, the same kind you put in iced tea. Its crinkly, small leaves make a surprising foil for the large, glossy leaves of bird of paradise, and it's a plant combination most gardeners would not think likely.

The Brentwood hilltop where the Getty perches was extensively graded and rearranged to accommodate the facility, and to prevent erosion, it was re-vegetated early on, a process begun by one of Southern California's premier landscape architects, Emmet Wemple.

After Wemple's death in 1996, Olin, of Olin Partnership in Philadelphia, took over design of the gardens, avenues and plazas around the buildings.

Trying to unify all these facilities and still give each its own character was no small trick, according to Curt Williams, director of construction and facilities.

"But we made it an interactive process," he said, in which each of the institutes or programs--the users--worked with the designers to help shape its own space.

For instance, Research Institute staff members wanted fruit trees near their cafeteria, so a small citrus grove and several gnarled fig trees were planted in a secluded garden, which, unfortunately, is not open to the public.

The center's many little gardens are linked and unified by the use of stone. The bubbly, effervescent Italian travertine used on the buildings is also used for paving, benches and even cobblestones in the gardens.

The center sections of the rough, split blocks used on the exterior of the buildings became the smooth paving stones that tie the landscape together.

Exceptionally large blocks were made into benches, and the tiniest blocks became cobblestones beneath the avenues of trees, where fragrant Corsican mint creeps through the gaps between stones.

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