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Culture? Not in Our Backyard

Homeowners won a court ruling to block the Getty Villa's proposed expansion, but it's a loss for the city and the communal fabric.

November 05, 2000|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | Nicolai Ouroussoff is The Times' architecture critic

It has become fashionable to mock the Getty. Tucked away in its $1-billion Brentwood castle, it seems to ooze institutional arrogance.

So to some, the court ruling last month barring the J. Paul Getty Trust from building a 450-seat outdoor theater at its old Pacific Palisades site symbolizes a welcome populist victory. The amphitheater is only part of a planned, $150-million expansion of the original Getty museum, the replicated Roman villa that stands above Pacific Coast Highway. The renovated villa will include a new bookstore, cafe, auditorium and enlarged parking facilities. The amphitheater was intended as both a new grand entry stair for the museum and a place to stage occasional performances.

Many homeowners were outraged. The amphitheater in particular, they claimed, would increase Pacific Coast Highway's notorious traffic congestion and bring more noisy crowds to the hilltop site. Represented by a coalition of homeowners associations and community groups, they sued. Last month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra I. Janavs found in their favor, ruling that the amphitheater did not fit within the museum's original mandate. The Getty Trust--whose villa has been shut since 1997--will appeal the decision.

Whatever the outcome, the ruling sums up the imbalance between the private and civic realms that has long been a central feature of Los Angeles' sprawling landscape. In architectural terms, that imbalance has created one of the world's richest legacies of residential landmarks. But it has also served to undermine the communal fabric that is the essence of urban life. And that should worry us as the city evolves into a denser, more sophisticated metropolis.

The political muscle of homeowners associations extends back to the 1910s. Although they were primarily established to protect local property interests from big city government, their emergence is closely linked to issues of exclusion. In the 1920s, for example, many homeowners groups were responsible for the creation of the restrictive covenants that banned minorities from owning property in a majority of Los Angeles neighborhoods.

Even today, with those covenants long overturned by law, homeowners groups often symbolize communities that consider themselves in constant peril from outside intrusion. Parking restrictions, neighborhood watch groups, rigid design guidelines--these are the tools such groups use to sift out unwanted elements. The effect is to preserve suburban values of separation, not the values of social interaction and an open mix of social classes, ethnic groups and ideas that are the hallmarks of life in the city.

As an actor on the urban stage, meanwhile, the Getty has done little to dispel its neighbors' paranoia. When the villa opened to the public in 1974, it hadn't bothered to obtain legal status as a museum. Local homeowners associations sued, and the parking reservation system, which restricted the number of visitors to the site, was a result of that original settlement. One year later, the city granted the Getty the conditional use permit that allowed it to operate a museum on the site.

In 1983, when the Getty announced it would build a new complex in Brentwood, its officials, now sensitive to accusations of institutional arrogance, began to woo its new neighbors. The concessions they made are famous. Under pressure from the powerful Brentwood Homeowners Assn., for example, the Getty changed the building's enameled white panels to beige. Oak trees, eucalyptus trees and bougainvillea were repositioned to block views into private enclaves. Parking and hours of operation were restricted.

But back in Pacific Palisades, the homeowners' wrath reached a new level. Loosely gathered under the banner of the Pacific Coast Homeowners, they demanded the amphitheater's removal, refusing to negotiate. The Getty then took its plan directly to city officials, who tried to accommodate some of the neighbors' concerns. As approved by the Los Angeles City Council, the theater's capacity was reduced from 650 to 450, and performances were limited to 45 a year. The city also limited noise levels and programming--the theater could only be used as a venue for classical works that somehow related to the museum's collections.

In a rational world, such concessions would have been perceived as a workable compromise between the needs of the neighborhood and the greater needs of the city. But even limited change in the Getty's mandate was seen by the neighbors as trampling on their rights as property owners. What they refused to consider was their place within the communal fabric of the city. They could not see culture as a critical component of the urban experience. As part of that experience, the Getty is not a fixed, static organism. It must be allowed to absorb new ideas to thrive.

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