About the Getty Center by Architect Richard Meier

Museum and Research Center Beyond the LA Skyline

Aerial view pf Getty Center, designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Richard Meier
Aerial view pf Getty Center, designed by Pritzker Prize winning architect Richard Meier. Photo by Steve Dunwell/Photographer's Choice Collection/Getty Images

The Getty Center is more than a museum. It is a campus that encompasses research libraries, museum conservation programs, administration offices, and grant institutions as well as an art museum open to the public. "As architecture," wrote critic Nicolai Ouroussoff, "its scale and ambition may seem overwhelming, but Richard Meier, the Getty's architect, handled a daunting task admirably." This is the story of an architect's project.

The Client:

By the time he was 23, Jean Paul Getty (1892-1976) had made his first million dollars in the oil industry. Throughout his life, he reinvested in oil fields across the globe and also spent much of his Getty Oil wealth on fine art.

J. Paul Getty always called California his home, even though he spent his later years in the UK. In 1954 he transformed his Malibu ranch into a art museum for the public. And then, in 1974, he expanded the Getty Museum with a newly built Roman villa on the same property. During his lifetime, Getty was fiscally frugal. Yet after his death, hundreds of millions of dollars were entrusted to properly run a Getty Center.

After the estate was settled in 1982, the J. Paul Getty Trust purchased a hilltop in Southern California. In 1983, 33 invited architects were whittled down down to 7 then to 3. By the fall of 1984, architect Richard Meier had been chosen for the massive project on the hill.

The Project:

Location: Just off the San Diego Freeway in the Santa Monica Mountains, overlooking Los Angeles, California and the Pacific Ocean
Size: 110 acres
Timeline: 1984-1997 (Inaugurated in December 16, 1997)
Architects:

  • Richard Meier, lead architect
  • Thierry Despont, museum interiors
  • Laurie Olin, landscape architect

    Design Highlights:

    Because of height restrictions, half of the Getty Center is below ground—three stories up and three stories down.The Getty Center is organized around a central arrival plaza. Architect Richard Meier used curvilinear design elements. The Museum Entrance Hall and the canopy over the Harold M. Williams Auditorium are circular.

    Materials Used:

    • 1.2 million square feet, 16,000 tons, of beige-colored travertine stone from Italy. The stone was split along its natural grain, revealing the texture of fossilized leaves, feathers, and branches. "From the beginning, I had thought of stone as a way of grounding the buildings and giving them a sense of permanence," writes Meier.
    • 40,000 off-white, enamel-clad aluminum panels. The color was chosen to "complement the colors and texture of the stone," but, more importantly, was chosen "from among fifty minutely varied shades" as the architect negotiated his color scheme with local homeowners' associations.
    • Expansive sheets of glass.

    Inspirations:

    "In choosing how to organize the buildings, landscaping, and open spaces,"writes Meier, "I deferred to the site's topography." The low, horizontal profile of the Getty Center may have been inspired by the work of other architects who designed buildings in Southern California:

    Getty Center Transport:

    Parking is underground. Two 3-car, computer-operated trams ride on a cushion of air to the hilltop Getty Center, which is 881 feet above sea level.

    Why is the Getty Center Important?

    The New York Times called it "a marriage of the austere and the sumptuous," noting Meier's signiture "crisp lines and a stark geometry." The Los Angeles Times called it "a unique package of art, architecture, real estate and scholarly enterprise--housed in the costliest art institution ever built on American soil." Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that it is Meier's "culmination of a lifelong effort to hone his version of Modernism to perfection. It is his greatest civic work and an important moment in the city's history."

    " Still," writes critic Paul Goldberger, "one feels frustrated because the over-all effect of the Getty is so corporate and its tone so even." But doesn't that exactly express J.

    Paul Getty himself? The esteemed architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable might say that's exactly the point. In her essay in Making Architecture, Huxtable points out how architecture reflects both the client and the architect:

    "It tells us everything we need to know, and more, about those who conceive and build the structures that define our cities and our time....Zoning restrictions, seismic codes, soil conditions, neighborhood concerns, and many invisible factors required constant conceptual and design revisions....What may look like formalism because of the ordered solutions was an organic process, elegantly resolved....Should there be anything to debate about this architecture if its messages of beauty, utility, and suitability are so clear?...Dedicated to excellence, the Getty Center conveys a clear image of excellence."—Ada Louise Huxtable

    More About the Getty Villa:

    In Malibu, the 64-acre Getty Villa site was for many years the location of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The original villa was based on the Villa dei Papiri, a first-century Roman country house. The Getty Villa closed for renovations in 1996, but is now reopened and serves as an educational center and museum dedicated to the study of the arts and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria.

    • Learn more about the Getty Villa
    • See photos of the Getty Villa

    Learn More:

    • Getty Museum Architecture
    • Architecture of the Getty Center, Reed College and Charles Rhyne, Portland, Oregon
    • J. Paul Getty Museum, Khan Academy
    • Making Architecture: The Getty Center, Essays by Richard Meier, Stephen D. Rountree, and Ada Louise Huxtabley, J. Paul Getty Trust, 1997
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    • Building the Getty by Richard Meier, University of California Press, 1999
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    • The Getty Center (Architecture in Detail) by Michael Brawne, Phaidon, 1998
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    Sources: Making Architecture: The Getty Center, Essays by Richard Meier, Stephen D. Rountree, and Ada Louise Huxtable, J. Paul Getty Trust, 1997, pp. 10-11, 19-21, 33, 35; The Founder and His Vision, The J. Paul Getty Trust at www.getty.edu/about/getty/founder.html; Online Archive of California; The Getty Center, Projects Page, Richard Meier & Partners Architects LLP at www.richardmeier.com/?projects=the-getty-center; Getty Center Inaugurated in Los Angeles by James Sterngold, The New York Times, December 14, 1997; Getty Center Is More Than Sum of Its Parts by Suzanne Muchnic, The Los Angeles Times, November 30, 1997; It Doesn't Get Much Better Than This by Nicolai Ouroussoff, The Los Angeles Times, December 21, 1997; "The People’s Getty" by Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker, February 23, 1998 [accessed October 13, 2015]