The Getty Center is a campus that features modernist buildings, beautiful gardens, open spaces, and panoramic views of Los Angeles. Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic at the Los Angeles Times, discusses the relationship between Richard Meier’s unique design and the architectural tradition of LA. This is the final episode of Getty at Twenty, a three-part series that looks at the Getty Center on the twentieth anniversary of its opening.
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JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE: One of the most memorable lines from Herbert Muschamp’s review in the New York Times was that this was a kind of nineteenth century idea of an institution wrapped in twentieth century architecture for a twenty-first century city.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne. This is the final episode of Getty at Twenty, a three-part series that looks at the Getty Center on the twentieth anniversary of its opening.
In the last two episodes, I spoke with architect Richard Meier and former Getty executive vice president Steve Rountree about the construction of the Getty Center. In this last episode of the Getty at Twenty series, I wanted to focus on the design of the Center and how it relates to the architectural history and character of Los Angeles.
Christopher Hawthorne has been the architecture critic for the LA Times since 2004. Before joining the Times, he was architecture critic for Slate and a frequent contributor to the New York Times. His work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the Washington Post, Harvard Design Magazine, and numerous other publications. He has taught at Columbia University, UC Berkeley, and the Southern California Institute of Architecture.
Christopher is a thoughtful and articulate critic of Los Angeles and its architecture. We started by talking about the commission itself.
CUNO: Christopher, thanks so much for coming in this morning and talking with us about the history of the Getty…
HAWTHORNE: My pleasure.
CUNO: …Center. So in 1983, the Getty invited thirty-three architects to submit their qualifications for consideration as the Getty’s architect. A year later in 1984 Richard Meier was chosen as the project’s architect. You weren’t the critic of the LA Times at the time, didn’t become critic in 2004, so where were you in 1984 when Richard Meier was chosen for the Getty? And do you remember the choice as being provocative, surprising, expected?
HAWTHORNE: I was actually in junior high in 1984. [Cuno laughs] I was thirteen years old, a student at King Junior High School in Berkeley, and not paying too much attention to architecture. Although I was interested in architecture from a young age, and I did make fairly regular trips down to Southern California. My mother spent some of her childhood down here; I had some relatives down here. And we had probably been to the now Getty Villa, you know, during my childhood, but I certainly wasn’t aware of Richard Meier at that point.
CUNO: In hindsight, though, does it ring true that it was a big commission, that it was an important commission, that there was attention being paid to it by the critical press?
HAWTHORNE: Absolutely. I think all the architects involved saw it, in many ways, as a—potentially, the commission of a lifetime, to have this kind of a site, to have this kind of a budget—although the budget was—it was unclear exactly [Cuno chuckles] precisely how much money the Getty might spend ultimately. But I think there was a sense that it was one of the, if not the major commission of that decade, I think among architects and critics, reading back as I’ve been doing the last few days.
And it was also an interesting moment in architecture because it was a very unsettled moment, I think. And that unsettled nature of the profession continued into the nineties, when I started studying architecture and architectural history. Postmodernism was emerging, but there were architects like Richard Meier who were holding fast to, let’s say, Modernist principles and ideals. And there was another group of architects out in Los Angeles—Frank Gehry most prominently among them—who were trying to do something that was neither Modernist nor Postmodernist. [CUNO: Yeah. Yeah.] And I think there was a sense of a kind of eclecticism, a sense that there wasn’t a kind of dominant sensibility. And that for that reason among others, this competition would be, I think, uniquely compelling in some ways because all of those various factions would be coming together.
CUNO: You’re absolutely right about that. And Richard was known at the time, I think, principally as a designer of high-end Modernist houses. He did do and was working on, and maybe even opened two museum projects at the time—one in Frankfurt Germany, and of course, the High Museum in Atlanta. But those, I think, were the only two major public buildings that he designed and they happened to be art museums. And then when it was announced that he was chosen, he was chosen with two others—Fumihiko Maki, who’s a distinguished Japanese elder architect of Modernist buildings, and Jim Stirling, a distinguished elder English architect of what sometimes one might call Postmodernist buildings, and in Stuttgart, his great museum that he designed there. So that was a group of architects that you’d be surprised, I think at the time, to find Richard Meier included.
HAWTHORNE: Yes. I think the High Museum in Atlanta had just opened that year. It opened in 1983, I think, as the selection was happening. And he had done the Museum of Decorative Arts in Frankfurt right around the same time, and then a small building in Indiana, an athenaeum, a kind of visitors’ center, [CUNO: Oh, right.] in New Harmony Indiana, which I think was late seventies when it opened, so when he was still quite young.
And I think the High Museum in particular made a splash in the United States. And so there was a sense that he was beginning to distinguish himself as the designer of public, civic, cultural buildings.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah.
HAWTHORNE: And I think that list of finalists was an interesting cross-section because Maki was a Modernist, as you suggested, and Stirling, although certainly had a kind of Postmodern sensibility, also had a lot of Corbusier a lot of Modernism in his work, and was a—I wouldn’t go so far as to say a chameleon, but an architect who was difficult to pigeonhole, and I think was an interesting third member of that final three because of the—I think the unpredictability.
I think one had a sense that one knew what an institution would get with a Richard Meier commission, and the same with Maki and Stirling, where there was a little more uncertainty, perhaps.
CUNO: Yeah. After the selection of Meier was made, various committees were established—one a program committee, one a design committee—and Frank Gehry was on the design committee, along with Ada Louise Huxtable. I haven’t talked with him about how he felt being chosen to be on the design committee but not having been chosen for the commission itself. Do you have any sense of how he felt about it?
HAWTHORNE: I think that was a period of frustration for Frank about his reception in Los Angeles. Like, there’s a long history of LA architects having to go to other cities, to other parts of the world, to really make a splash. He had already achieved some renown, but it wouldn’t be till the end of the eighties that he would win the Disney Hall competition. And so I think that he was anxious to be doing projects of this scale in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. And I think he probably would’ve said at the time that he felt that way, that he was ready for projects of a bigger scale. But I think it was also important for the Getty to have some local representatives. Certainly, Ada Louise Huxtable’s influence loomed large.
She was also on the Pritzker jury [CUNO: The year he won the Pritzker Prize?] in those years. As far as— she was a long-time juror of the Pritzker, and my sense is that she—
CUNO: ’Cause Richard gets the Pritzker Prize about 1984 or something.
HAWTHORNE: [over Cuno] The same year, ’84. [CUNO: Yeah, right.] So I think in spring of ’84, he wins the Pritzker, and then later that year, he’s chosen to design the Getty. So that was a significant year for him. And I believe Ada Louise [was] involved in both of those choices. So I think it was important for the Getty to also have some local representation, and Frank certainly helped—
CUNO: [over Hawthorne] Yeah. There was also a sense that he, Richard, was able to make a commitment that he would open an office in town, and that that was extremely important in the selection process—that he was willing, effectively, to put this project first among the many projects he had. And clearly, the size and scale, scope and importance of the project, it was first among the projects he had. Do you have a sense of how meaningful that is to a client, to know that the architect is willing to make that kind of investment?
HAWTHORNE: I think particularly when you’re talking about a project that will stretch over many years, more than a decade, in this case—and there was a sense early on that this would be a project that would take some time because of the complexity of the site from a topographical but also perhaps from a political point of view, given the interest, the keen interest of the neighbors who had houses overlooking the site.
So I think it was important for two reasons. One, because of the long gestation process that would be required in this case, complexity of the commission. And also because the Getty was very cognizant of the fact that it was importing a New York architect, and I think was careful from the beginning, sensitive to that criticism, and wanted to have him established here and really begin to understand this part of Los Angeles, and have him live as much as possible on the site and really become, at least temporarily, an Angeleno.
CUNO: Yeah. So then Richard gets the commission; he opens an office in Los Angeles; he’s committed to the project. He’s got to negotiate a contract with the client. He doesn’t really know how on what terms he can base a contract because there’s no program yet established. There’s not even the beginnings of a program. So they establish two committees. I mentioned one before, the design committee, but the program committee, also. How elaborate was that? Was that typical for a project of this size, let’s say, to have such an elaborate structure like that?
HAWTHORNE: My sense is that it was more elaborate than was typical, but perhaps in a way that was suitable given the complexity of the project and the complexity of what would ultimately become the program. I think Richard might say now—and certainly said at certain moments during the process—that it felt like too much to him, too many cooks.
CUNO: [over Hawthorne] Too many clients, yeah.
HAWTHORNE: And too much design review, too much checking in with these committees about where the design process had gone. And I think there was—well, this was so much grander than anything the Getty had taken on before, and really grander, in some ways, than any Los Angeles cultural institution had taken on. And so there was a sense that there needed to be some checks and balances. And I think a sense that because of the consistency of Meier’s approach, a kind of anxiety that played out, mostly in the discussions with the neighbors, about whether his sensibility was really appropriate [CUNO: Yeah.] for Los Angeles.
CUNO: [over Hawthorne] Describe that more, because it’s in terms of some of some very specific qualities of his design.
HAWTHORNE: Absolutely. He’s unusual in the consistency of his approach, an approach that really has its roots in European Modernism, Northern European Modernism, architects like Corbusier particularly. And was almost exclusively white, was gridded, a kind of modular system, often white aluminum, metal panels. And well, it’s interesting to think about his origins in New York. Meier was one member of the so-called the New York Five, which also included Charles Gwathmey and John Hejduk, Michael Graves, and Peter Eisenman. And they were announced to the world in this 1972 book as having a sensibility, a kind of shared fidelity to Modernism in architecture. And as the kind of new emerging guard, avant-garde of New York architects.
And what’s interesting is that their work almost immediately began to splinter as a group. [CUNO: Right, yeah.] They went in very different directions. Michael Graves went in the direction of Postmodernism, John Hejduk went in the direction of more theoretical work, as did Peter Eisenman. And Meier was the lone member of that group who really stayed faithful to, let’s say, a kind of purist vision of Modernist principles, particularly in an aesthetic sense.
I think what distinguishes his work from the Modernist architects whose work he really idolized—Corbusier and others—is that they were interested in a kind of utopian social idea that Modernism in architecture was connected to a kind of social revolution. And for Meier, I think it’s fair to say, it was a more aesthetic connection; that he was interested in the purism of those forms, and that there was something daring in the seventies and eighties about recommitting oneself to those ideals in an aesthetic sense.
So I think there was a feeling among many in Los Angeles, particularly those neighboring homeowners, that Meier had a kind of unyielding style that was not flexible, and that would not adapt to the different sort of site and climate [CUNO: Yeah.] that he would be working in in Los Angeles.
CUNO: I mean, he was well-known but he wasn’t that well-known. But he was so well-known on the terms you describe that that was clearly the first negotiating point with the—even before he’d started designing the project, it was a negotiating point with the neighbors. How typical is it for a group of neighbors to have that kind of authority? To say, look, whatever you design, we’re gonna be watching it carefully, but the very first thing you gotta know about us is that we don’t want a white building on top of this dusty brown mountaintop.
HAWTHORNE: I would say it’s very unusual. It’s more and more common in Los Angeles these days, as we’ve run out of big spaces to build. And when there are large projects, homeowners have a lot to say. Homeowners have much more political clout, I would say, here than in other cities. That continues to be the case. But I think in the case of the Getty, it was unusual for an architect like Meier. And I think there was a sense that [he chuckles] some of the contextual elements of the design were added sort of kicking and screaming; that he had to be dragged to a position of contextualism, if that makes sense. And that he did maintain that fidelity to a kind of purist idea of architectural principles, and that he was reluctant to—but—reluctant to change, but also realized that it was probably would be required in this case.
CUNO: Do you think the Getty was overly sensitive to the neighbors’ position at this time? Or do you think that that was the nature of it, as you described just a minute ago, in Los Angeles, that it would be inevitable that you’d have to take that into account so early in the project?
HAWTHORNE: I think architecturally speaking, they were probably overly sensitive. I don’t know why you’d choose an architect like Meier if you are going to immediately ask him to commit to these compromises which seem fundamental to him, to his basic approach as an architect. I think politically, they were probably required, unless the Getty wanted to have an even more drawn-out process that would involve much more litigation.
So it’s easy in hindsight to say, they should’ve pushed forward and insisted that the architect be able to do whatever he liked. I think politically and practically speaking, that probably would’ve been quite difficult.
CUNO: And maybe for the podcast listeners who haven’t seen the sort of historic photographs of the site and think of the site only as the sort of rustic garden that it currently is, you might describe it to us, because it was a site that was put together by a number of different lots What’s the story about that, and how was that undertaken?
HAWTHORNE: So [it’s] a site, as every Angeleno will know, in the Sepulveda Pass on the west side of the San Diego Freeway, the 405, with remarkable views of the coastline, and then looking back toward the city. Something like 740 acres, I think, altogether, with about 110 acres that were considered buildable. I think from the beginning, it was clear that most of that site—
CUNO: [over Hawthorne] How many lots were they?
HAWTHORNE: I don’t know actually, how many lots were put together.
CUNO: [over Hawthorne] Six or seven—
HAWTHORNE: [over Cuno] that were cobbled together to create this—in some ways, a kind of last piece of this scale. You know, a kind of end of the twentieth century dream of expansion, let’s say expansion towards the west. You know, the kind of twentieth century trajectory of the city of Los Angeles is from downtown—as downtown begins to lose its centrality, as the city begins to develop a more polycentric urban form as the twentieth century wears on, there’s a sense that the city is moving, progressing to the west.
That money is moving from east to west, from downtown toward the wealthier neighborhoods on the Westside, and that cultural institutions are following suit. And I think—I think of the Getty as the kind of high point of that notion that a cultural center of gravity was moving from downtown to the west. And I think what’s interesting is in the twenty years since that, particularly in the last decade, that has reversed itself.
In the time that I’ve been in Los Angeles, since 2004, the cultural center of gravity has moved quite distinctly, I think, from west back to the east. And so if you’re—just one example, if you’re a young architect in those days, in the seventies and eighties, into the nineties even, and you were looking to set up a studio, the chances were as a young, ambitious architect, you would look for a place in Santa Monica or Venice.
HAWTHORNE: Now if you’re a young architect, you’re much more likely to be trying to find a studio downtown, in Koreatown and Echo Park, even east of the river. And that reflects a larger kind of shift back, back to the east.
CUNO: Yeah. So in this western part of Los Angeles, you have the development of Century City and greater UCLA, and then as you say, the residential areas west of the 405. And you’ve got this huge artery going right through the 405 and hugging the 405, is the Getty Center. I could see that as a compounding development, a commanding development of the city as you describe it. As they were designing the project, Frank Gehry gets the commission for the Disney Hall. And it’s downtown. Was there any sense of a kind of rivalry, not only between architects, but between downtown and west Los Angeles at the time?
HAWTHORNE: Absolutely. So I think complicating the trajectory that I described from east to west, from downtown to the Westside, there were a couple forces pushing back against that. One, the Getty’s own case, is that for the Getty as an institution, moving what we now call the Getty Villa, on the oceanfront really, building the Getty Center here next to the 405 was actually moving as an institution, at least a little bit, to the east, back toward downtown, although not too far. Not over the 405, which is really the key kind of dividing line between east and west in Los Angeles. But also, there are always a number of boosters led by the Chandlers and the Los Angeles Times and other institutions, who are always hopeful—even as Los Angeles is kind of splintering into this polycentric urban form, and even as that polycentric form is being celebrated by scholars like Reyner Banham and others, who come here and see in Los Angeles a new kind of urban form that ought to be studied closely, if not celebrated.
There is always a group of downtown boosters who are hopeful—and this continues to this day. This continues with the way in which Eli Broad has talked about Grand Avenue and downtown, for example—a group of boosters who are hopeful that Los Angeles can have once again, in the way that it did in the teens and twenties, a downtown that is really central, that is really first among the equals among these various centers, and that can resemble the downtowns in other cities that have grown up in a more traditional fashion—Chicago or New York or London or Paris. And in fact, Eli Broad has talked about wanting Grand Avenue to exist as our Champs-Élysées, a place where we can bring together all these cultural institutions. So I think there was always a sense of if not rivalry, a kind of tension between the idea of building these institutions in places like where the Getty wound up and consolidating those institutions on a street like Grand Avenue, for example.
CUNO: [over Hawthorne] Yeah. So the neighbors were putting some pressure on the Getty and the choice of Richard Meier, with regard to the color, as we’ve described it earlier. And the color turns out to have been a kind of rustic brown, the color of the landscape that’s around it. And then materials end up being travertine, a kind of rough and rugged travertine, as well as a polished travertine. Some of this was inspired by trips that the design team and the design committee took, and the program committee took, around the world to sort of see other buildings, to see other sites, and among those that impressed Richard Meier and the Getty, of course, were the Tuscan hilltops towns of Italy but also the great ancient remains of Roman Italy. And one has to think, although I’ve not heard it described precisely as this, but that the interest of J. Paul Getty in ancient Roman remains—after all, his villa, Getty Villa that you described a minute ago, and its location here by the ocean, is a replica of a Herculaneum villa. And Herculaneum, of course, is a kind of seaside summer resort for the ancient Romans.
So this sense that this traveling around was helping them understand what it is they wanted to do with this building. That kind of travel and exploration of other building types was something that was very informative and influential, it seems, in the design of the Getty.
HAWTHORNE: Absolutely. And in fact, one of the avenues not pursued because of the attention of the neighbors was, I think, Richard Meier’s early notion that this complex of buildings might resemble an Italian hill town with some vertical towers, a kind of San Gimignano-like collection of buildings, and that there was very early on in the negotiations with the neighbors, a sense that there needed to be—that there would be a height limit and that he wouldn’t be able to realize that vision.
As I think about it, I think there were three elements that Meier and this group, this sort of building committee—three ways in which they were thinking about how this commission might be realized. One was Richard Meier’s own sensibility and kind of unyielding Modernist principles, which might be modified by the use of travertine. Then another is the Getty’s own, let’s say, Eurocentrism and the—you know, the nature of the collection and J. Paul Getty’s own interest in Europe, and the architecture of the Villa as being an example of that, as a replica, looking to Europe for those kinds of models.
And then I think third, an interest from the very beginning in having some connections to Los Angeles architecture. So I think it was important for Richard Meier [to] think about the ways in which he might incorporate some references to Los Angeles Modernists, to Schindler and Neutra in particular, and perhaps to the work that Frank Lloyd Wright did in Los Angeles in the early 1920s. So I think those three things were all going on. And I think the result is a kind of combination of all three of those.
CUNO: Yeah. And so the design process takes about seven years. You know, 1991 is when the design is actually presented to the public. What was the response at that time? Certainly, there were concerns about what might happen, but now there’s a sense that this was what we want to have happen. What was the public response? What was that like at the time?
HAWTHORNE: Leon Whiteson, who was writing about architecture and design for the LA Times at that time when the design was unveiled, was wary, but generally quite positive about the early models, about the first public version of the design. I think there was a sense that there was this negotiation between these competing ideas, architectural ideas, but a general sense of excitement.
I think his main critique was how the complex of buildings would look from down below, from the freeway and as one approached it; that the scale, particularly of those buildings on the eastern side facing the 405, were of a scale that might be intimidating as seen from below. He talked about these kind of cliff-like edges of the buildings. But in general, that first piece that Leon wrote was pretty positive.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, did he know then what the landscape might be like around it? Because there’s a great deal of attention paid to the landscaping design Did he have, when he wrote that, any sense of how that verticality might be softened by a material landscape?
HAWTHORNE: [over Cuno] A little bit. A little bit. Although the landscape team changed fairly dramatically, I believe, between the early nineties and ’92. I think Laurie Olin’s firm, and then Dan Kiley as a consultant, began their work, I think in earnest, after the unveiling of that first public design, is my sense. And that it was later, through the middle of the nineties, that the landscape element of the scheme was developed. And then of course, the later addition of Robert Irwin.
CUNO: Looking back at it now, twenty years later, do you think that those concerns about the verticality and the dominance of the structure on the site were proven to be true and accurate? Or do you think that they have sort of softened with the landscape around it?
HAWTHORNE: For me, it’s hard now to wonder what a kind of more vertical approach might have produced. I think some variation among the buildings in height would have really been a benefit, architecturally and urbanistically, because this is such an unusual—it’s a campus of buildings all created together. And so what’s crucial in making that work I know, well, we think of as urbanistic terms. That is, the relationship of one building to another across public spaces and courtyards. That in that sense, some variations among the buildings in height and in other ways would have been really effective. And so for me, I think if those constraints had been removed, what you would’ve had is a whiter building, probably without the travertine, and a more vertical set of buildings. Or at least buildings that varied more in height.
And that, to me, sounds like it might have worked quite well. I think—I mean, as I said, I certainly understand the constraints that the Getty was operating under and the interest of those neighbors in the final result. Just purely from [an] architectural point of view, I think it would’ve been better to have more variation in the buildings and allow more of that.
CUNO: It’s now a kind of beacon at this intersection that you mentioned that’s so important—that is, the 405 and Sunset like that. It does seem that the Getty and Richard Meier must’ve taken into account this particular site and how one was going to make a dramatic statement on the site.
HAWTHORNE: Absolutely. I mean, that’s really what made the commission so compelling to all of those architects, that you would have not just one building, but a collection of buildings, and not on a traditional site, but on this—you know, crowing an entire hilltop. And it’s hard to imagine any architect not being compelled by that, by the potential of that. But there was a lot of discussion at the time about the various views, not just from the closest neighbors, but all of the views from below, as it were.
You know, there’s been so much discussion in the intervening twenty years about the decision to consolidate all of the Getty’s programs on this one site, and how might things have been different if the Getty had built in a different way. They were certainly interested in that kind of consolidation. I was interested to see, in looking back at some of the reviews and coverage that that was a concern from the very beginning, a topic of discussion. And even Herbert Muschamp, in his review for the New York Times, imagined what might have happened had the Getty—I think his phrase, “had the Getty apportioned its resources” in various parts of the city, rather than consolidating it.
HAWTHORNE: So I think there was, in a philosophical sort of way, and also an architectural one, a lot of discussion about what it meant to put all the buildings on the hilltop. How it would look, the kind of message it would send, and so forth.
CUNO: Yeah. The Getty, of course, being an institution concerned about how the institution works as an institution, wanted this campus to be built so these buildings would have not only a relationship to each other architecturally, but that programmatically, they would have it where you’d have members of the research institute community being able to walk over to the museum, members of the conservation community being able to walk over to the research institute. In these critiques of the architecture, the critiques of the sort of urbanistic impact of the architecture, was there any consideration of how the institution itself wanted to function as an institution?
HAWTHORNE: Yes, absolutely. And when I’ve written about this, I’ve tried to make it clear that this is really just a thought experiment: What would it have been like for Los Angeles had the Getty decided to build, you know, five or ten different buildings across the city? And I’ve tried to make clear that that was not the Getty’s interest. The Getty’s interest was this kind of consolidation. The kind of interconnectedness between one program arm and the next, as you’ve described.
And I think most of the coverage did address that. I think what’s interesting, though, what you lose when you do it the way the Getty did it, is you lose the ability for members of the public to interact with the institution in that way. In other words, someone who works in the research institute can wander over and talk to someone who works in the museum. And that kind of collaborative energy is possible here. What you’re missing is the ability of someone, an Angeleno, to just wander in and have a kind of quick interaction with a work of art, the way that I think some New Yorkers can do at MoMA or the Metropolitan.
CUNO: Coming just in off the street.
HAWTHORNE: And that you could have that kind of repeated—almost on a whim, that you can go meet someone or see a work of art, or have repeated visits with a particular work of art. So that there’re always those tradeoffs. And I think the Getty’s interest, as you say quite rightly, was in the kind of programmatic benefits within its own set of ambitions that could be realized by bringing all these programs together.
CUNO: And it clearly, too, the Getty must have wanted to build a structure that would be a destination, and to have the experience be a destination experience, where people might come up the Getty—a deliberate act, as you describe it. Come to the Getty and spend not just a few minutes looking at one or two pictures, but spend two or three hours engaging with works of art, engaging with the gardens, having a bite to eat, rolling around on the lawns, whatever it might be. Make it a kind of family experience. There’s a clear sense that you were going to invest the time coming to the Getty, you were going to have a good time at the Getty.
So let’s talk about that, because we’ve talked about the Getty as seen from afar, as seen from the exterior. We should think about it now as an interior grouping of experiences and buildings.
Ada Louise Huxtable, the great architectural critic and writer, as we’ve mentioned, wrote a thoughtful explanation of the Getty’s design and how it emphasized its dramatic “slow reveal”—those are her words—the “slow reveal” as one approached it on foot or by tram up onto the plaza. And ultimately into the museum courtyard with its fountains, and then onto the site and its gardens. Talk about the experience of accessing the Getty.
HAWTHORNE: That is certainly the most dramatic part of the element of the Getty’s design and siting on this hilltop. It’s important to say, though, that there’s quite a rich tradition of Los Angeles architectural landmarks that operate that way, going all the way back, perhaps, to the Griffith Observatory, and perhaps even before that. I would say Frank Lloyd’s Ennis house on the hills above Los Feliz from 1924. And then Dodger Stadium after the war, 1962. These landmarks that, paradoxically enough, feel central to Los Angeles because of their detachment and the way that they offer a way to get away from the city and views toward back the city. I think there’s an unusual and very rich tradition of landmarks that operate that way in Los Angeles that is not true in other cities. And so the Getty is actually not alone in that. And I also think that there’s a lot to be said for that sense of detachment, particularly as the culture, I think even in the intervening twenty years, has gotten more hectic. And it seems to move faster than ever. A sense that you set aside a number of hours when you’re going to the Getty and you know that that chunk of time is spoken for, and that you can on that ride on the tram up the hill begin to move away from being even just— [CUNO: In your car. (he chuckles)] in the car, but even connected to the kind of hectic pace of everyday life and the way that the culture now spins so much faster.
CUNO: When I talked to Richard about this, he was talking about his initial idea was that you would come up on the tram and onto the plaza off the tram, then you’d go up a set of stairs before you made your way to the buildings, the museum on one side, the research institute on the other side. And so he thought that this stairway climb should be taking you between the two buildings, not to a particular building, and that it was decided that the public would be most interest in the museum. After all, the research institute is a library for research scholars and so forth. So he reoriented the staircase leftward, eastward, toward the museum itself. Do you think that was a missed opportunity? Do you have an understanding of how he intended that initial ascent to be made?
HAWTHORNE: I think there’re a number of things to say about that plaza. I think that notion is still one that you can sense as a visitor, that that stair doesn’t just lead to the museum, that it leads to [an] entire complex of buildings. In fact, it leads to a kind of upper courtyard, that will then lead you almost anywhere that you’re hoping to get. I think there’s some visitors who think after taking that trip up the hill, to have another set of stairs is a kind of overkill, and that it is a throwback to the kind of grand set of stairs that you would see in front of the Met or a kind of nineteenth century museum.
In fact, one of the most memorable lines from Herbert Muschamp’s review in the New York Times was that this was a kind of a nineteenth century idea of an institution wrapped in twentieth century architecture for a twenty-first century city, as he described it, in Los Angeles. And I think there’s some sense of all that happening when you get up to the courtyard. I think for Richard, I think that sense of detachment was important, even once you got off the tram, that you would still have some time to orient yourself and to move in a determined way up to the museum.
I think that plaza also, despite the travertine and the way that it softens the kind of classic Meier palette of the grid of white metal panels, I think my sense always had been—not just because of the glare, which some critics talked about, because of the way that it deals with the sun—that’s where the architecture strikes me as most out of place and most detached from a Los Angeles idea of, let’s say, landscape and light. Because of the birthplace of that Modernism that Meier was so committed to is Northern Europe, it really makes sense for that climate, which is much grayer and—and it always has struck me as too bright and not particularly well suited for the really strong sun we have, even this close to the water. I mean, you do get days when it’s very hazy here and you that fog from the coast. But on a very bright, sunny day—I’ve had the same experience in—I don’t know if you’ve been to the high school for the arts on Grand Avenue, that Wolf Prix, an Austrian architect firm, Coop Himmelb(l)au, designed. He also uses a lot of those Corbusian forms. And I found the plaza in that high school exactly the same way. It’s a kind of metallic silver instead of white, but it really seems to me that it would be much more at home in Northern Europe than in Southern California.
CUNO: So let’s assume you successfully negotiated the tram, the stairways, and you enter the Getty Museum through the entrance hall, and then from the entrance hall into a kind of interior plaza. And the plaza is made by these different pavilions within which there are the galleries. And connecting the pavilions are walkways. So there’s the sense that you are then invited into the darkened interior of a exhibition space, where you’re allowed to look, encouraged to look very closely at a few works of art, because it is a pavilion; it’s not one single large Metropolitan Museum of Art building. And then you’re invited to go outside, get a breath of fresh air and be rejuvenated by sunlight, and then go back inside.
Whose idea was that? Was that Richard’s idea? Was that the museum director’s idea? And how do you feel that that’s worked over time?
HAWTHORNE: For me, that sense of circulation and moving from inside to out and dark and light, once you’ve entered the sort of museum realm, once you’ve entered the collection of buildings that are really dedicated to displaying art, is one of the most effective parts of the design of the whole ensemble.
And I think in large part, it really was Richard’s idea, and it was one way in which he was looking back to LA Modernists like Schindler, and in particular, Neutra. I think there’s so many affinities one can think about between Meier’s work and Richard Neutra’s work. A kind of machine-made modern, a kind of a very precise, highly polished kind of modern architecture. And that thinking always about that relationship between in and out.
So actually, that’s where a connection to landscape and climate and light works much more effectively. I think once you get into what you described, that kind of inner sanctum, both that first atrium and then the inner courtyard and the way in which you move from one gallery building to the next, often outside or on a hallway, a kind of circulation area that allows views in a couple of directions, that whole section of the complex seems highly attuned, to me, to a kind of connection to landscape and light, and a kind of Southern Cal—particularly Los Angeles tradition of Modernism as opposed to the Northern European one that we were just talking about.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. And then the other building that people might know of the Getty, because it’s increasingly made open by way of exhibitions that are mounted there, the research institute, which we describe as the home of scholars and a great library, is a very different design. It’s a circular design, or principally a circular design as opposed to the blocky accumulation of architectural forms in the museum. Richard had great praise for that building, and he feels that Kurt Forster, it’s director, had the greatest sort of sense of architecture, and had the greatest ambition architecturally for a new form. Tell us about that building.
HAWTHORNE: I would agree that it’s one of the strongest pieces architecturally. It has a different sensibility, it has a different kind of geometry than the others. And it raises the larger question that you’re hinting at, which is the way in which there were many clients for this project, and there was maybe a client for each of the institutes, and that some of those heads of the various institutes, directors, were more or less involved or interested in the architecture. And I think Kurt Forster was, Richard would say, unusually involved and a strong client in a way that was very productive.
CUNO: [over Hawthorne] He’s an architectural historian.
HAWTHORNE: Yeah, and produced something that really, I think, suggests when you go in there, that this is really a space for a community of scholars. And I think one of the most effective things about that space and the different geometry is that in that kind of radial layout, you have a sense that you were one, if you’re going there to work, that you’re one of a group of scholars who are working there together, distinct from and separate from the public coming to see the works of art. But of course, just a short walk away from those galleries.
So I agree. And I think despite what we think of perhaps as the compromises that Richard had to endure or make on this project, it was such a large and complex commission that he also, within his own sensibility and range, had a number of opportunities to test out ideas. It’s very complex, even within the range of Richard Meier’s work because the program across the different buildings is so varied. And there are buildings that are for the public, that are sort of quasi-public, that are sometimes open to the public, as you were mentioning, and some that are much more private, just for staff.
I think that’s one of the reasons it was so appealing to all the architects who were involved in the competition, that it would be so much more than a museum, not just in scale, but in that it was really several buildings in one, and that they could use all those different muscles, as it were, architecturally.
CUNO: Yeah. And the space in between the museum and the research institute, those two architectural forms we’ve described, of course, there’s this open garden. And that’s the orientation that Richard initially wanted the stairs to take, that it would take you up toward that garden, which he felt was the kind of magnetic center of the building site. And of course, famously, the landscape architect for the garden is not the same as the landscape architect for the site, but rather is an artist, Robert Irwin. And Richard’s had little to say since then. He had a lot to say about it before the culminating choice of Robert Irwin for the garden. He’s had nothing positive to say since, but certainly little to say since. Even in your recent interview in the LA Times, you asked him to comment on it, and he simply said no. What’s your sense of the garden now?
HAWTHORNE: I think that that sort of tension between the two of them was, even though I think there are parts of the garden and its relationship to the building that aren’t perfect, was something that the project needed. And I think because the scale was so vast and because there’s a single architectural sensibility being brought to bear on the whole site, there was a danger—and because of the particular approach that Richard Meier brought to bear—there was a danger always that the project could be too clinical. That was one, I think, contemporary criticism of Meier at the time, that his work could be too clinical; even, if one were to critical than that, antiseptic.
And that the project, in the worse case scenario, might resemble a kind of hospital/healthcare complex. And I don’t think it ever did. But I think that to have a figure as strong willed as Bob Irwin, and with his own sensibility pushing back a little bit, even if it made Richard uncomfortable, that tension was valuable, I think. And I think there is a kind of jarring connection, not just between the gardens that Robert Irwin designed and the buildings, but also between, as you mentioned, Irwin’s gardens and the other landscape of the project. And the seams are very much showing. In other words, as you move from one of those sensibilities to another, you’re very conscious of it, I think. Even if you don’t know anything about landscape architecture, I think you probably sense. The geometries are different, the palette is different, all of those things. Even to someone who’s not an expert or doesn’t know the name Robert Irwin or Dan Kiley.
And so even though it doesn’t always work in a purely aesthetic sense, which I think is what really upset Richard more than anything—because he had this idea of an ensemble, a connection of building and landscape, and a consistency among the buildings that would be absolutely consistent across the whole project. And of course, Bob Irwin’s interest was precisely the opposite. He wanted to upset the apple cart in all sorts of ways.
So I think it’s still effective, in that sense. And then also, purely from a circulation—as something to draw you as a visitor down to the bottom, the lowest point where you can turn and look back. And that’s where this idea of a kind of Italian hill town really is strongest to me. That there’re points in those towns where you go—either the highest or lowest point—to kind of get a vantage point, to get a sense of the whole.
And I think the gardens, among many other things, are an opportunity to pull people away far enough so that they can look back and get a sense of—that’s very different from the view that you get from the other side, looking from the freeway, of course.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. You’re sort of in the midst of it, looking up at it, yeah. I mean, I think for our podcast listeners who haven’t visited the Getty should know that when you make your way to this garden, as opposed to just walking out onto a garden, you descend down into a garden. And the garden is experienced as much walking through the garden, or more—I mean, maybe that’s the principle experience of the garden—than looking at the garden. And when you do make your way down through the garden itself at the bottom, looking back up at it, in a sense what you’ve done is—just as in the pavilions of the museum, where you’ve gone indoors to look at work of arts, to come back outside, here you’ve gone into a garden, into the kind of belly of a garden, to look back up through the garden, onto the buildings themselves.
HAWTHORNE: [over Cuno] Right, and there’s—
CUNO: It’s kind of like a gallery in and of itself.
HAWTHORNE: Absolutely. And it’s also different in terms of layout and, let’s say, perspective than you might expect. That there’s so much in Meier’s approach that it is, if not symmetrical, then certainly highly rational. And the garden takes you in a kind of oblique direction away from the buildings. And so as you’ve described, you come up after you come up that stair that we described and you can enter the museum and the galleries, if you turn just to the right, to the southwest, you can move down through that garden, as if you’re going sort of toward the back of the complex, as it were. So instead of having a formal garden that’s either framing the entrance to, let’s say, a castle or villa, the way it would in a European context, or be precisely to one side or in the back, this is—kind of takes you in an oblique angle away from the buildings.
And I think that, again, is—it takes you not just physically away from Meier’s composition, but it takes you in sensibility, into a different kind of geometry, a different sense about perspective and color and all those things. Which then provides a kind of detachment to think anew about Meier’s own composition, in the way that we were just talking about.
HAWTHORNE: I think it’s very effective that way.
CUNO: Yeah. So the building is opened in 1997, celebrated for its long development, shall we say, and also for the contribution that it makes to the city at that time. It’s reviewed not only by local press, the LA Times, of course, but by international press and national press. And the principal reviews are either hostile or negative. What’s your sense now, twenty years later, about both the building project, but about the negative reviews with which it was greeted when it opened in ’97?
HAWTHORNE: Well, the most negative of all, most notorious, was the piece that Martin Filler wrote in New York Review of Books, in which I think the headline was, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” And he was really unsparing in his criticism of—I think when we were talking about the kind of antiseptic, clinical nature. That was among his criticisms. That it didn’t really look like a museum; it looked like a kind of corporate headquarters or an institution for a corporation rather than a center for art. But the other reviews, as I’ve been reading them, were much more measured and mixed, trending rather positively, actually, I think. Herbert Muschamp’s review had some very positive things to say. And remember, that fall—I mean, it was a very interesting fall for architecture criticism, because Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao had opened earlier that fall. And that had received really rapturous reviews, particularly, most famously, Herbert Muschamp’s review of Bilbao, which was printed the New York Times Magazine, which was quite unusual, and actually a long excerpt of the review was printed on the cover, which is also quite unusual. And so it was only a couple of months later that all the critics, having just been to Bilbao were now coming to Los Angeles.
And so there was some discussion about, again, what it meant that Los Angeles had sent its now star or leading celebrity architect, Frank Gehry, to Spain to kind of realize his vision in the most effective way, and that Los Angeles had imported this architect, not just an architect from New York, but an architect who had a sensibility that was fundamentally European in some ways, and whether that was a strange fit for the Los Angeles of the turn of the century.
I think if you consider the long gestation and when the selection process was being made, and the selection was being made in the eighties, Los Angeles was still—not just at the Getty—a city that was insecure about its architectural monuments and whether it ought to entrust them to local architects like Frank Gehry, who had a much different and, let’s say, more unpredictable approach than Meier, whose sensibility, as we’ve discussed, was quite regular. And there was a sense that one knew what one would get.
I think the reviews all—not all of them explicitly mentioned Frank Gehry’s museum in Bilbao, but there was a sense that this had been a season when these two very different museums had opened. And for me, as a young—you know, I had just—was about to move to New York. I was just starting to think about writing full time about architecture, the two of those buildings opening, the two museums opening, as they did in that fall, was really the beginning of the sea change.
There had been a period in the middle nineties when architecture had not been covered with much regularity. And there were some newspapers whose critics were retiring—Allan Temko in particular, of the San Francisco Chronicle, had won a Pulitzer. And the newspapers were deciding not to replace them and thinking of architecture as a field that they could sort of get away with not covering. And that all really changed quite dramatically in 1997 with the opening of Guggenheim Bilbao and the Getty.
The economy was picking up, so that was part of it. But there all of a sudden, after those two buildings, was a sense that—among—you know, as I moved to New York the following year, 1998. There was a very clear sense among the editors of newspapers and magazines in New York that architecture was something that they had to be covering again, and that they couldn’t be missing out on. It had moved back into the center of the cultural conversation, in a way that hadn’t been true in many years, and that these two projects had helped to propel that.
CUNO: Do you have a sense that the Getty raised the prospects of additional architecture in Los Angeles in a significant way? In other words, you mentioned already the Frank Lloyd Wright and Neutra, Schindler, the great historical legacy of Los Angeles. But then Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne, another Pritzker Prize winner, but Richard Meier there in the midst of it all. And do you think that now, twenty years later looking back, that it is not only yet one more important piece of architecture in Los Angeles, but it’s contributed to a greater sense of Los Angeles as having an architectural tradition?
HAWTHORNE: Yes. I think the—you know, the ways in which the building picks up on a kind of Modernist tradition in LA that we’ve been discussing are varied. It’s still, as mentioned, on the whole, seems more a European kind of Modernism than a LA Modernism. When I think about the work that Wright did here, it was much more connected to a regional sensibility. His houses, the concrete block, Mayan, pre-Columbian inspired houses that Wright did here in 1923 in particular were, I think, much more directly connected in a literal way to their sites, because the recipe for that concrete was, let’s say, three parts, I think, soil from the sites to two parts Portland cement. Those concrete blocks were actually made from the soil that the buildings were rising from. So the—you know, one could have a longer discussion about how effectively Meier was pulling together those threads of Los Angeles Modernism.
But I think things did really change. A number of things happened. I think Meier himself, by being in Los Angeles as long as he did, and by Michael Palladino, who was his partner, who was a key figure on this project, we should say, and stayed on in Los Angeles after and continues to run the Meier office in Los Angeles, and spearheaded many, many projects in Los Angeles, so that the Meier office was quite prolific in the region in the years after the Getty opened, and continues to be.
That was important. And then I think the sense that because the Guggenheim Bilbao had opened in ’97, that helped kickstart the completion, helped to accelerate the completion of Disney Hall, Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, which had been stalled and then was finally completed in 2003. And then that really, in turn, ushers in a period when cultural institutions in Los Angeles become more comfortable using LA architects like Frank and like Thom Mayne, as you mentioned.
So then right when I arrive here in Los Angeles—I started at the Times in 2004. The Caltrans building, just across from the Times building…
CUNO: Thom Mayne’s building, yeah.
HAWTHORNE: …Thom Mayne’s building, had just opened. And he then subsequently won the Pritzker within a couple of years. That building opened. And so there was a sense that at long last, that LA institutions were looking to local architects to produce these buildings of large scale, rather than importing them from New York or from European cities.
CUNO: Yeah, I have a sense that this building, these sets of buildings, which are now twenty years old, has a sense of looking eternally modern. In other words, it looks like it’s been here for a very long time and it doesn’t look like it’s aged much. It’s maintained extraordinarily well, or these sets of buildings are. Do you get a sense of what the lasting legacy of the Getty will be?
HAWTHORNE: I agree with that, actually. And I think that was the central reason for Richard Meier’s appeal at that moment, was that he did produce this kind of timeless Modernism, and that he wanted a kind of architecture that was out of time, in that sense. There was a lot of discussion in these reviews I was reading—and even when he was chosen, but then when the buildings opened—that what he had done through the eighties and nineties—so through the period that he was selected, and then during which the Getty was being built, he had resisted the kind of pull that I think Martin Filler, another writer, described as the kind of faddish changes in the architectural profession as Postmodernism came and went, as LA architects were doing work that was quite distinct from Modernism, the so-called LA School, many of whom we’ve talked about already—Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss and others. And that Meier’s appeal was that he had resisted those changes in fashion, and that his work was consistent and timeless as a result. And I think that’s true.
There is a kind of paradox, though, because the set of ideals that he was faithful to, Modernism, the key defining characteristic of that architecture was that it was innovative and forward-looking and meant to be avant-garde. And so [Cuno chuckles] to be faithful fifty and seventy-five years later to that set of ideas, looking back, is a contradiction in terms, in some ways. But I think twenty years later, you can see the appeal of that fidelity and that timelessness.
I do think, you know, [in] some ways, the grid, the kind of so-called Piano curves do really look to anyone who knows the architecture of the period like the eighties and nineties. And they seem very rooted in time in that sense. But as a whole, as an ensemble, I would say there is a sense that it was aiming to, and I think in some ways succeeded in, stepping away from kind of trends that were really buffeting architecture in that period.
As we were discussing at the beginning of this conversation, I think what we’ve forgotten about that period is how uncertain, eclectic, how much the whole profession was being tossed and turned. And there were lots of architects who were very faithful, for almost as long as Richard Meier, to Modernism, who then sort of went [he chuckles] over to Postmodernism. And often you’ll see monographs, or you look at the website of those firms, and they have carefully excised a few projects [Cuno chuckles] of the late eighties and early nineties when they did experiment with Postmodernism in not so effective ways.
Just to give one example, as architect, Anthony Lumsden, Tony Lumsden, who worked with Cesar Pelli and did a lot of great mirrored-glass Modern architecture in Los Angeles in the seventies and eighties, and then later in his career, sort of moved in the direction of Postmodernism in some ways that weren’t as successful. So I think Richard and his defenders would say that there was some really unfortunate experimentation happening as a result of that uncertainty in that period, and that Richard was able to stand apart from that and resist it, and that the Getty benefits from that. And I think—I think there’s something to that.
CUNO: You know, for those of us who work at the Getty and think about what its future might be like, knowing that institutions will inevitably grow over time—that time could be fifty years, a hundred years, 200 years, whatever it might be—one has a hard time thinking of how the Getty Center itself might develop over time, whether it could not only politically or legally, but aesthetically, how it could on this particular site. What’s your sense about the future of the Getty Center?
HAWTHORNE: I think that’s a fascinating idea to contemplate. I think the sense from the very beginning, even before the Getty Center was completed, was that this would be a very difficult complex of buildings to add to. Because of the site, the topography of the site; but even more so, because of the ways in which Richard Meier’s architecture and the way that all of these buildings are so unified that any new addition that didn’t match that would stand out like a sore thumb. And that his architecture in general can be difficult to add to. It’s interesting to look at the High Museum in Atlanta. I think much to Richard’s chagrin, they decided not to ask him to do the addition; they hired Renzo Piano. And Renzo is often the architect who is brought in—as was true of LACMA, as well, in Los Angeles—brought in to do additions to tricky buildings for the—
CUNO: [over Hawthorne] Or the Kimbell, with Lou Kahn.
HAWTHORNE: Or the Kimbell. Where there is an important landmark that seems resistant in the ways we’ve just been talking about, to that kind of addition. And he’s often the architect who’s brought in to try to pull that off. But even with Renzo, I think it’s difficult to imagine—it would be a fascinating commission. But I think there is a sense that there was a rigidity to Meier’s approach and to the way that this complex was organized that would make it difficult to add to unless it were done at a kind of satellite location.
CUNO: Right. Well, Christopher, thanks so much for your time and thanks for your thoughts on all this. It’s clear that the Getty Center is one piece of architecture, complex as it might be, that’s still to be considered in the light of the history of architecture in Los Angeles, which is ever evolving in dramatic ways. So we thank you for your time.
HAWTHORNE: It’s my pleasure, thank you.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
CHRISTOPHER HAWTHORNE: One of the most memorable lines from Herbert Muschamp’s review in the <...