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Getty at 10: Still aloof, yet totally L.A.

Design questions raised at the center's birth remain relevant as its relationship with the city evolves.

December 16, 2007|Christopher Hawthorne | Times Staff Writer

During much of the 1990s, as the Getty Center was rising on its Brentwood hilltop, a couple of stubborn questions dogged the hugely ambitious project: Would Richard Meier's design ever have anything meaningful to do with, or say about, the city over which it loomed? Or would it exist as an expensive import, a vast collection of smooth enamel and rough travertine conjured up by a New York architect who looked west for commissions but east, to Europe and its Modernist past, for inspiration?

This weekend, as the $1.2-billion complex celebrates its 10th anniversary, those questions seem as relevant as ever.

In part that's because the answers keep changing. When Meier's design proposal was unveiled, the Getty was widely seen as an anomaly in Los Angeles, an effort to lend instant, old-fashioned respectability to an institution that craved it. Then, after it opened Dec. 16, 1997, the Getty surprised us by fitting in. And in the last couple of years it has begun to look like an anomaly all over again, though for a fresh set of reasons.

Looking back at the museum's changing reputation offers more than the chance to see how the relationships between a city and its most significant landmarks change over time. It also helps explain the various shifts -- many of them profound -- that have redefined the field of architecture, and the city of Los Angeles, over the last 10 years.

Architecture's leading figures have become global brand names, courted by commercial, governmental and cultural clients alike. L.A., for its part, has grown more vertical and noticeably denser -- and less white by the day. It takes most of its external cultural cues these days not from Europe or New York but from Latin America and Asia.

That's not to say we have given up entirely on the idea that some Old World glamour can save or redeem us. The biggest local museum commission since the Getty, the expansion and reconfiguration of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, went to Renzo Piano, 70, a talented and genteel architect who splits his time between Paris and Genoa, Italy. But the next music director of the L.A. Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel, is a 26-year-old from Venezuela. The new dean of the architecture department at USC is Qingyun Ma, a Shanghai architect who just turned 42. His counterpart at UCLA, 45-year-old Hitoshi Abe, arrived here in April from Sendai, Japan.

Though the Getty was a force for architectural and civic change, both as a model to follow and to react against, it was far from the only one. Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, among the most catalytic designs in architectural history, also opened in the fall of 1997 -- a triumph that helped get Gehry's stalled Walt Disney Concert Hall back on the track to completion.

Still, there is no question that the Getty Center permanently altered the way we think about new high-profile buildings here. The thumbnail version of its influence goes like this: The ways in which the complex successfully took advantage of L.A.'s climate, landscape and culture are worth copying; the ways in which it remained separate from the city, physically and symbolically, or tried to impose an inflexible approach to architecture better suited to Manhattan or Bauhaus-era Germany are worth avoiding.

Ultimately, however, exploring the question of the Getty's connection to Los Angeles raises another: In a global city as wildly diverse and prone to amnesia as this one, how do we define what fidelity to local context, to the spirit of a place, even means?

A curious choice

In 1984, Harold M. Williams, president of the Getty Trust, announced that the architect for its ambitious new headquarters, on 110 acres just west of the San Diego Freeway, would be Richard Meier, then 49. The choice was curious: To design a museum on a site detached and aloof from the quickly changing city below it, the Getty picked an architect whose work -- and whole professional persona, for that matter -- was often detached and aloof as well.

By sticking to an orthodox version of Modernism in an era of Disneyland eclecticism, Meier, throughout the 1970s and '80s, had at least won points for consistency and rigor. But his chiseled designs, seemingly allergic to color and humor in equal measure, appeared to exist in a vacuum, without any of the sense of social mission that had driven the European architects who inspired him. The purest examples of his work were exercises less in Modernism than in antisepticism.

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