The Getty Center is a high-brow Disneyland.
I visited the site on 30 December 1997, a few weeks after its official opening. I went with Michael Norton, a painter friend, without reservation, by bus up the hill. Arriving at the foot of the hill, we quickly learned that the crowd of visitors was no ordinary crowd. It was a pandemonium. There were lines and lines, spiralling this way and that way, and no one knew which was the right one or where the tail end was. But we stood in line almost two hours and got in only because many had left before we got to the monorail, having been told that we may not get to the gate before the closing time.
We did well to be patient because there was an announcement at the end of that day that, beginning the next day, no one will be admitted without reservation for parking. There were literally thousands (or, may be, hundreds) all over the place. Once inside, however, we could stay on as long as we wanted. We stayed from 12:00 noon to sunset.
So, there it was, a dazzling stage set -- a stupendous site and a spectaclar cluster of buildings up the hill, white and gleaming and Modernist, more like a fancy resort complex, perhaps a turn-of-the-century European spa, Josef Hoffmann revisited.
The place is called the Getty Center, not the Getty Museum. Art is a small portion of the spectacle. The center is nominally a complex of a research institute, a conservation laboratory, an auditorium (a little down the hill), and a museum complex. But, seen as a whole, it is a public park. The museum consists of four pavilions of two stories and a subground story, each pavilion with five or six galleries arranged around an atrium, giving at least a half of the building's volume to circulation and thus reducing wall and floor surfaces for exposition. The art displayed contains some gems but it is not a major collection. So, the whole compex impresses us as a monumental padding. The site is probably up to 80% open spaces for public circulation and idle occupancy -- terraces, gardens, platforms, passages, more terraces, covered and uncovered, fountains, bridges, and walks. The most prominent central building is a huge lobby for reception and orientation.
Richard Meier's square panels, scintillatingly used at High Museum in Atlanta, cover everything here; and it's too much. High Museum is urban in setting and it is modest in size; here the buildings are expansive. Travertine in its creamy color should give some relief to the expanse of polished tiles but does not, because he uses the stone undressed, a sort of rough side out, denying the beauty the halvah texture that the stone reveals when dressed as it is conventionally. The stone shows, instead, the rock-face which in travertine is neither attractive nor interesting -- like velvet turned inside out.
The controversial garden by Robert Irwin needs, of course, five years to grow in. I liked the design as much as I did reading Lawrence Weschler's delightful New Yorker essay (8 December). It's much smaller than I thought. I think it makes sense to counterpoint Meier's geometric rigor with the "chaos" of planting, if the plants grow as Irwin expects them to. This kind of contrast is not unprecedented; Lord Burglington's Chiswick sits in the midst of a jardin anglais, and the situation is similar at Blenheim where Capability Brown's garden rolls and meanders against the stately symmetry of the palace architecture. The garden here is only a fraction of the total site. Modernist architecture prevails overwhelmingly.
The sun was bright and the sky blue, unusually for Los Angeles, and that made the spectacle doubly spectacular. It is destined to be a tourist attraction of first order, a billion-dollar cream puff, now amply hyped with a feature-length Maysles documentary. Ironically, this is possibly a harbinger of future museum establishments to judge by the changed character of museum attendance everywhere today where more and more emphasis is on marketing. A special exhibition today is already a display catalogue for the museum shop at its terminus.
T. Kaori Kitao, 1 July 1998
The Seen as Text