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A villa in their vernacular

The Getty posed a unique challenge for its renovation team, who chose to indulge beauty and harmony over postmodern pique.

November 06, 2005|Michael Z. Wise | Special to The Times

New York — WHEN the J. Paul Getty Trust hired Richard Meier to design its hilltop complex in Brentwood, it could rest assured about the architectural style of what it was commissioning since all Meier's modernist creations have a consistent rigor. But when the Getty chose Machado and Silvetti Associates to refurbish and expand its Villa in Malibu, it was less clear what the outcome might be.

In contrast to Meier, Machado and Silvetti have no readily identifiable design theme. Led by Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, Argentine-born academics who first gained prominence as postmodern theorists in the 1980s, the Boston-based firm has a reputation for tasteful refinement, a keen sense of texture, and the ability to remain mindful of tradition while producing forms that are remarkably fresh.

The $275-million Getty Villa project stands as Machado and Silvetti's most significant design, centering on the 64-acre property just above Pacific Coast Highway where oil billionaire J. Paul Getty built a loose replica of a Roman country house. The mock villa by the architecture firm Langdon & Wilson was dismissed by some critics as a gaudy concoction when it opened to the public in 1974.

"This folly of Getty, how do you take that building?" asks Silvetti, the partner responsible for the Villa's redesign. "We could have taken it with irony; we could have taken it with aggression. A lot of architect friends of ours recommended both. We took it very seriously, and I think we made it a better building. We made our own architecture, which is quite distinct, and tried to bring a certain harmony into a rather disparate set of buildings."

Due to reopen Jan. 28, the Villa will house Getty's collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. The tycoon's 1920s Spanish Colonial-style Ranch House has been refurbished as curatorial offices and an educational center. Silvetti is the lead designer, but he and Machado insist that all their projects are collaborative efforts. Born less than two months apart, the 63-year-old, courtly, erudite duo dressed virtually alike for a recent joint interview in New York, with similar black blazers and trousers, identical black blucher lace-ups and matching crimson socks.

"We like it rich," purrs Machado in lightly accented English, to which Silvetti injects "visually rich for sure. We are not minimalists. I don't understand minimalism in architecture." Compared to the pure lines of Meier's Getty Center, Machado and Silvetti's reworked Villa verges on sumptuous. Even if the most prevalent materials are concrete and stone, these are arranged with an expert eye for subtle detail and texture. Terrazzo floor patterns inspired by antiquity, walls in a historically based colorful palette, simple yet artfully curved stair banisters and bronze window frames heighten the visual appeal.

It would be hard to read the changes they have made to the opulent, original Villa as adding unnecessary fuss, but nonetheless, Silvetti continues, "Even though the effect may be decorative for some, it is deeply rational and very, very precise conceptually." In some places, they used the same honey-colored travertine stone that Meier deployed at the Getty Center. "It has become an icon of the Getty, and they are selling pieces as souvenirs. We are using it in many different ways," Silvetti says. "But we did want to make the comment that the projects are by nature complementary."

Meier's Getty Center looms citadel-like at the top of a hill; the Villa is at the bottom of a ravine. Modeled after the Villa dei Papiri, which was covered in the AD 79 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and later excavated at Herculaneum, the 1974 replica was built to house Getty's collection of antiquities, French furniture and Baroque and Renaissance paintings. To protect these art works, illumination was tightly controlled. "This was a hermetic building in spite of having been inspired by a Roman garden villa," says Silvetti. Now that the more light-sensitive pieces have been moved to the Getty Center, Machado and Silvetti were free to open up the Villa to daylight, adding skylights and creating some 60 new windows by breaking open the brick walls.

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