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The ancients cast in new light

At the Malibu museum, transformations -- visceral and conceptual -- reframe antiquity.

January 01, 2006|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

J. PAUL GETTY'S favorite statue of Hercules dominates a breathtaking space -- as usual. Clenching a lion skin in one hand and hefting a club over the opposite shoulder, the life-size marble figure presides over a round, shrine-like gallery inspired by a room in an Italian seaside estate that perished when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.

The gallery -- called the Temple of Herakles, in a nod to the mythological hero's Greek name -- has retained its original travertine niche and marble floor, with triangular patterns radiating from the center like petals of a flower. But brick walls have been replaced by ochre- colored plaster with a seductive, suede-like texture. The smooth dome, once decorated with mosaics, has been supplanted by a coffered hemisphere, like the ceiling of Rome's classical Pantheon. And the 1,400-pound statue stands on a new seismic isolator, invisibly attached to the floor.

Much has changed at the Getty Villa in Malibu -- scheduled to open Jan. 28 after undergoing a $275-million, eight-year renovation -- and yet much remains the same. Boston-based architects Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti have converted the former all-purpose museum into a study center for the arts and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria, with expanded facilities for antiquities conservation, public programs and scholarly activities. Startlingly new structures have risen on the spectacular 64-acre site, but the museum at the heart of the complex has retained its original character. Although many parts of the building have been dismantled and reconstructed, the changes can be subtle, if not imperceptible.

The long-anticipated opening is Southern California's biggest art and architecture event of the year. Many insiders who have previewed the Villa have marveled at the complexity of the project. Although art critics have yet to weigh in, a few architecture critics have put their opinions in print.

Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times praised the Villa as "an exquisite work of architecture" but concluded that "the fun is gone."

In sharp contrast, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne deemed the design "a useful road map for future development in ever-more-crowded Los Angeles -- a fresh, thoughtful means of figuring out how to deal with the baldly striving architectural landmarks that abound here." The 1974 museum building, designed by Langdon Wilson Architects with historical consultant Norman Neuerburg, he wrote, "is not just more open but more comfortable in its own skin. Asked to do less, it appears capable of doing more."



VISITORS will enter the museum through the atrium, the historically correct main entrance, instead of wending their way around the outer peristyle garden, as in the past. Those with sharp memories of the pre-renovation Villa will see at a glance that the atrium and second-floor galleries have new windows and skylights and that antiquities have replaced the European paintings and French furniture now displayed at the Getty Center in Brentwood. They will also discover that the museum has acquired a superb collection of ancient glass.

But few will notice alterations in the Temple of Herakles or such other changes as climate-controlled environments, security-glass-encased cabinets and new mounts for every single object. Even fewer will detect major infrastructure improvements such as steel reinforcements embedded in walls and floors, data ports under removable floor plates and a huge tunnel connecting the loading dock in a recently constructed office building with the museum's new freight elevator. Much of the money spent on the Villa paid for things the public will never see.

Transformed as it may be, the Getty Villa still embodies the passions of a notoriously tightfisted art collector who loved classical history and had dreams of grandeur. The Hercules sculpture, a Roman interpretation of the Greek hero, is said to have inspired him to build his 1st century, Roman-style villa with a special room for the statue. The museum in Malibu is a re-creation of Villa dei Papiri, the largest and most luxurious residence found during the 1700s at the village of Herculaneum, near Pompeii. The site has yet to be fully excavated, but exploratory tunnels yielded enough information to map the house. Still, Getty's version is a pastiche, incorporating elements of more accessible buildings of the same period.

Getty bought the Hercules for a bargain $18,500 in 1951, when collecting antiquities was out of fashion. Unearthed at Hadrian's Villa near Tivoli in 1790, it landed in London in Lord Lansdowne's collection and became known as the Lansdowne Herakles. At Getty's death in 1976, the sculpture was part of a trove of about 1,600 Greek and Roman antiquities, 17th and 18th century French decorative arts and Old Master paintings housed in Malibu.

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