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A Classic Conflict

Commentary: The Getty Trust is riling neighbors over expanding its Roman villa complex, but something bigger is at stake.

November 01, 1998|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

Civic culture. Private life. These two themes have dominated urban planning debates in this country since the turn of the century. But for the J. Paul Getty Trust, the balance between local needs and public mission must seem like a recurring nightmare.

In a public presentation before a city of Los Angeles hearing examiner scheduled for Dec. 7, trust officials will unveil their latest program for the renovation and expansion of the famed villa complex of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Located in Pacific Palisades on the border of Malibu, the museum has come under attack from a faction of neighbors who see the new plan as a further invasion of their small, insular community. Too many cars. Too much noise. These complaints are familiar ones for the Getty. More than a decade ago, while planning the Getty Center in Brentwood, officials spent two years negotiating with local homeowners over such issues as building heights and paint colors.

There is little question that the villa project will transform what essentially was conceived as an elaborate, if eccentric, estate-like setting for viewing art into a true civic monument. The expansion and renovation will take place over three years, at a projected cost of $150 million. Nearly half the budget will go to the restoration of the villa, but the site will now become a more sophisticated cultural complex, one that will include a 600-seat Roman theater, a 300-seat restaurant, a bookstore, auditorium and upgraded facilities for conservation programs.

The conflict--which pits rich homeowners against a multibillion-dollar foundation--centers on the theater. Homeowners have imagined loud performances, throngs of reveling tourists, the roar of applause shaking them out of their late-night sleep. The hidden implication is that the Getty is seeking to create a vast cultural playground, a Roman-style Disneyland for the masses. That fear is rooted in suspicions over the Getty's institutional arrogance. As one neighbor put it to me: "What struck me was the religious fervor they have about saving the country, about saving the world."

Yet the Getty's cultural ambitions have never been so straightforward. They have never been about popular culture, nor are they about a radical cultural mission. They are, instead, linked to notions of taste, of gentility, of the civic forum as a place of serene contemplation. Only a month ago, in fact, the Getty scuttled plans for a second multilevel parking structure on the site, in part because of local complaints, in part because the Getty hopes to control the flow of visitors through the museum. The theater, they claim, will be limited to a small number of classical performances a year. The current design, by the Boston-based architecture team of Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, is an example of the most genteel kind of historicism. It will clearly improve what is already one of the city's most beloved cultural attractions, but it will do so with an eye toward decorum.

In effect, the villa is maturing from the idiosyncratic, deeply personal vision of a mega-millionaire secluded in England to a more complex cultural experience. It is a refined civic forum for the contemplation of high art set just across the Pacific Coast Highway from a hedonistic landscape of surfers, sunbathers and beaches. As such, it reflects a broader shift in the city's cultural identity, an identity once characterized almost exclusively by eccentric monuments to personal wealth.


When the J. Paul Getty Museum opened in 1974, the city's cultural sophisticates whispered about its gaudiness, its lack of taste. The structure--an ersatz reproduction of the 1st century Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum--was seen, as Joan Didion wrote, as "a perverse and deliberate affront to the understated good taste and general class of everyone at the table."

J. Paul Getty didn't care. With a quintessentially American faith in the permeability of class boundaries, he saw himself as an ally of the popular masses that flocked to see his new museum, and not of the cultural critics who felt uneasy with the building's ostentatious forms. Hence, the original Getty Museum became emblematic of the Southern California ethos, a melding of high art and hedonism.

The selection of Machado and Silvetti for the villa's renovation can be read as a correction of all that, part of a broader, sometimes self-conscious effort on the part of civic leaders to display a more sophisticated cultural image. Machado and Silvetti are nothing if not tasteful. Their architecture is one of refinement. They offer exquisite materials, elegant detailing, a delicate sense of history. The secret is that they are also sensitive urban planners. History and taste are only tools in their attempts to shape the urban drama. They see, rightly, that cities are made up of fragments of distorted, incomplete visions, and their design seeks to reflect that urban complexity.

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