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After thirteen years of planning and construction, the Getty Center opened to the public on December 16, 1997. Architect Richard Meier shares his memories designing the campus, including living in the midst of a construction zone and finding golf balls across the site. This is the first 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.
RICHARD MEIER: They said, “Oh, yeah, the building’s too expensive. We want to keep everything, but cut down the cost.” I said, “Well, the only way to do that is to make the project a little bit smaller.” So we took all the drawings—the exact same drawings—and shrunk them 12%. And no one missed a thing.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with architect Richard Meier. This is the first episode of Getty at Twenty, a three-part series that looks at the Getty Center on the twentieth anniversary of its opening.
The Getty Center opened to the public on December 16, 1997. Situated in Los Angeles between the 405 freeway and the Pacific Ocean, the center is a campus of buildings that houses the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, and the offices of the Getty Trust.
This year the Getty Center celebrates its twentieth anniversary. In the next three episodes, I’ll be speaking with architect Richard Meier, former Getty executive vice president Steve Rountree, and architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne about the early days of the Center and its relationship with the architectural history of Los Angeles.
We’ll start with Richard Meier, the architect who was selected to design the Getty Center in 1984. Richard was chosen from a field of thirty-three initial candidates, which was whittled down to seven semi-finalists, and then three finalists. The other two finalists were British architect James Stirling and Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. At the time, Richard was fifty years old and best known for elegant and intelligent high modernist designs, principally of houses, but also of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Shortly before winning the Getty Center commission, Richard was awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize.
I spoke with Richard by phone from his apartment in Manhattan. I started by asking him about his book, Building the Getty, in which he chronicles the planning, design, and construction of the Getty Center.
CUNO: So let’s talk about the competition for the project. In the book, Building the Getty, you note that in October 1983, you received an invitation to submit your credentials, a kind of common procedure, for consideration as the architect of the Getty Center. You and thirty-two other architects. So there were thirty-three who received a letter, as you received.
MEIER: That’s right. And as I remember, what they asked was, you know, submit work that you’ve done that the committee could review. And basically, you know, we just put together a brochure of things we thought they would be interested in seeing. But I even included residential projects, I believe, at that time just to fill up the pages.
CUNO: [he laughs] Well, you said—you said in your book that had the letters been sent out a year or two earlier, you wouldn’t have been on the list because your career wasn’t as developed at that time as others who received the list. What was your career like in 1983?
MEIER: Well, at that time, I’d been working on the High Museum in Atlanta and the Museum für Kunsthandwerk in Frankfurt. But both of them were just nearing completion or under construction. The High Museum wasn’t finished till 1984, and the Museum für Kunsthandwerk was finished a few years earlier in Germany. But I didn’t really have at that time any significant museum experience, you know, to sort of give me the proper credentials.
CUNO: Yeah. Did you think they might’ve made a mistake in sending you the letter?
MEIER: No. [Cuno laughs] The committee, which was established at that time, was composed of a few trustees, but Ada Louise Huxtable was, I think, the person who put together the list for the Getty. And she knew my work and she knew the work of all the others. I mean, the most knowledgeable architecture critic there ever was and ever will be. She was phenomenal. But she was instrumental, I think, in sort of creating the list. Others might have been involved but I don’t know.
CUNO: Yeah. Do you remember how much time there was between receipt of letter and your submission of credentials? How much time do they give you to put it together?
MEIER: Not a lot. Maybe a month.
MEIER: Yeah. I had some books on my work, which I included, as well as the brochure. But they didn’t specify what you should send, [CUNO: Yeah.] as I remember.
CUNO: And you probably didn’t know much about the Getty Center, because no program for it had been established yet and—
MEIER: No, no. They didn’t have a clue about that. They had just purchased the site, as I remember. But that was about it.
CUNO: Yeah. And then you write in the book that a few weeks after you sent in these credentials to the committee, you learned that you’d been named one of seven semifinalists. [MEIER: That’s right.] You also learned that the other six semifinalists were much older than you and more established in their practice. [MEIER: Right.] And you also learned that they each represented a different aesthetic. Did you have confidence in the Getty that it knew what it wanted to do?
MEIER: N—I don’t think so. I think at that point, you know, there was no program. They didn’t know what the Getty was going to be. They didn’t know much except that the site was going to be a difficult site, you know, on which to build.
CUNO: Yeah. But not long after you received word that you were a semifinalist with the other six, you were selected among the finalists, you would be one of three.
MEIER: [over Cuno] No, no, no, that’s not quite right. It was a year-long process. They came to my office. I remember going to Atlanta with them, meeting them in Germany to see the museum there. They traveled all around the world looking, you know, at the work. Not of the thirty-three, but of the final three.
CUNO: When they finally did make the final three selection, and it was you and Maki and Stirling—and you knew Stirling quite well, I think, but did you know Maki very well and his work?
MEIER: I knew Maki; I didn’t know him as well as Jim Stirling. Jim would teach one semester at Yale, and then on weekends he would come to New York, and he would stay with me here in the apartment. So Jim was a good friend and someone I knew well. And so he used to joke, you know, hahaha, you know, “They’re not gonna choose an Englishman.” [they chuckle]
CUNO: Did you talk to each other about the projects and how you were developing your ideas for it or did you keep that very separate?
CUNO: It was about that same time that you learned that you were—been awarded the Pritzker Prize.
MEIER: That’s right. I think quite honestly, that was very important, [Cuno laughs] in terms [CUNO: That it was, yeah.] of my being selected. I mean, the timing couldn’t have been better.
CUNO: What was it like to get that news?
MEIER: Yeah. Well, I mean, first of all, it was totally unexpected. I think up until that point, I was the youngest person ever to receive the Pritzker Prize. I was, I think, the third recipient. You know, it was a great surprise and could not have happened at a better time.
CUNO: Now, when you were a finalist, you wrote a letter to the committee, describing your approach to the project, [MEIER: That’s right.] the design of the Getty itself. And as I recall, you emphasized the natural setting of the site and the quality of the sunlight of Southern California, and especially the materials of the structure; and then finally, the interior. How much detail did you get into in your letter that you had to write to them, and how long was the letter?
MEIER: Well, I think all of us—or, you know, the finalists—were invited to come out to look at the site before the selection. You know, because I remember walking on the site. You know, there was nothing there. [Cuno chuckles] And the thing that sort of struck me was the way the land had been manipulated
because before the Getty purchased that property, it was owned by a man named Tom Jones who lived on the other side of the 405 in Bel-Air. And he had two hobbies. One, he had a tractor, and he would go up to the site and kind of move the land around. And the other was, he liked to hit golf balls [Cuno chuckles] from the site and see if he could hit them as far as the 405 freeway.
And so all around the site, I found these golf balls with a red stripe from a driving range [Cuno chuckles] that came from when he owned the property. But I think we were all, you know, invited to see the site, and then asked to write a letter about our thoughts. Not in terms of what it would look like, but you know, what it meant and what our attitude was like.
And of course, as I remember, I said, you know, “This is an institution, which has a great importance as a cultural institution, but also it has a sense of permanence about it. It’s not being designed, you know, for ten or twenty years; it’s being designed for a long, long time. And that has to be expressed in the architecture.”
CUNO: I think you said, “It needs to be a fresh and eternal building.”
MEIER: Right, right. That letter, I think, was very important, in terms of the, you know, committee’s recognition of my commitment and thoughts about the project.
CUNO: Yeah, I’m sure. For our listeners to the podcast who can’t imagine what the Getty site was like before the buildings were built, give us a sense of what it was like, ’cause it was filled with ravines and there was very little flat space anywhere around. So you had to somehow come to terms with it.
MEIER: Yeah. Actually, there was a little bit of flat space at the top, where Tom Jones sort of flattened it out. And also, there was a path that led up through the woods, if you went north from the site. And at the top of the path was a clearing where you had these extraordinary views. I remember climbing up there with my son and it was a very hot day. And it was part of the hiking trails through the Santa Monica mountains.
My son took off his t-shirt and he left it on the path so we could pick it up on the way down. We came down, the t-shirt was gone. [Cuno chuckles] So lots of people, I guess, just sort of walked through that area.
CUNO: I think I know in the letter that you wrote, you wrote a lot about the qualities of the building, what it stood for and so forth. But did you have to talk a lot about the site itself and how you would use the site as part of the Getty Center? Because it’s such a dominant aspect of the Getty Center.
MEIER: Right. Well, you know, obviously when you’re up there, you know, you have views all the way to downtown LA; you have views to the Pacific Ocean, you have views in every direction. And there isn’t, you know, one place where you could stand where it wasn’t magnificent. I mean, it’s just extraordinary. So in thinking about the site you had to think about not only the internal spaces but the external spaces as well.
CUNO: Yeah. So two weeks later, after mailing your letter in, you received word that you’d been given the commission of the Getty Center. What was it like when you received the letter—or the phone call indicating that you’d received the commission itself?
MEIER: Well, I remember it very clearly because after this year-long selection process, which, you know, took a huge amount of time. It was a Sunday evening. And I got a telephone call at home from Harold Williams saying, “Richard, I’m pleased to inform you that the selection committee has chosen you to design the new Getty Center.” And I was overjoyed. I remember it so clearly. And I tried to express to my young kids at the time what it meant. And they said, “Oh, that sounds nice, Dad.” [Cuno chuckles] But also, Harold said to me, “You know, now that you’ve been selected, do you think we can finish in three years?” I said, “Harold, there’s no program. We don’t know what it’s going to be. There’s no way it can be done in three years. Maybe twelve.” And actually, I was closer to—I was more accurate. But he said, “No, let’s finish it quicker,” you know? [they laugh]
CUNO: Yeah, that would’ve been Harold. Would’ve been—any client probably would like to get a project done. So at that time, you had to develop a contract with the Getty.
MEIER: No. There was no way to do a contract. You know, we knew there’d be a museum. But that was all. I mean, it only came later, about the Center for the History of Art and Humanities, the Conservation Institute, you know, that there would be an auditorium and trust offices. So you know, all that—we had hundreds and hundreds of meetings to discuss, you know, what it would be. And each director had been already chosen. Kurt Forster was onboard, John Walsh, of course. Luis Monreal was head of the Conservation Institute. Steve Rountree was sort of the spokesman for the trust offices. And the food service building didn’t have anyone that I can recall that was sort of in charge, except they knew they wanted a cafeteria, as well as, you know, a fine dining room.
But it was very vague at that time. And it was really Kurt Forster who sort of had the clearest vision as to what the Center for the History of Art and Humanities should be. He wanted a circular building so that people could kind of navigate from the entry level down into the bowels of knowledge, [he chuckles] as he said, in the lower level. He was very much involved. And of course, you know, being an architectural historian, he had a clearer sense of how the architecture and the program should be intertwined. With the museum, it was just decided by John Walsh and others, you know, that they wanted it divided into pavilions, which represented different periods of the collection.
And Jillian Wilson was the person who wielded a great deal of power in the decorative arts section because she bought decorative arts for Mr. Getty when he was alive…
CUNO: Right, right.
MEIER: …and had dealt with him. And of course, as you know, Mr. Getty had one rule in terms of his buying of art. He’d buy anything, as long as it didn’t cost more than $50,000. [Cuno laughs] And so Jillian could buy excellent decorative arts for that; but the museum, unfortunately, you know, wasn’t up to it.
CUNO: Yeah. So at that time just after you received the commission, there were a couple of committees established, one of which was the program committee that you just described some of the individuals that served on that committee to define the Getty Center and what it would comprise. But there was also a design advisory committee. Did that come as a surprise to you, that there would be another committee that would specifically at the design that you were producing?
MEIER: [over Cuno] Yeah, actually, it was a surprise. And I think—I think it was Harold Williams’ way of—I don’t know, how can I say it, you know? Getting second opinions on everything.
MEIER: That the design advisory committee, you know, they could be overruled. But he wanted, for some reason, people outside of the Getty to sort of give them their opinion of what was being done.
CUNO: How did you negotiate the relationships that you had to cultivate between yourself and those various committees?
MEIER: No, it was fine. You know, they would come to the office, I would make presentations. I remember once, you know, during the design process, we made hundreds of models from the very beginning, which I have mostly now in my model museum in Jersey City, but which someday should go back to the Getty, although I don’t know where you’re gonna put them all. [Cuno chuckles]
But at any rate, the models were very important. And we kept making—kind of starting with small-scale models of the whole site, and then continue—we had a model shop down on Sepulveda Boulevard, and we could make large-scale models and actually wheel them into the parking lot so you could see the buildings in natural light. You could see the quality of light and how the light played off the spaces.
But I remember during one presentation in the office, Gordon Getty came in. And I was sort of explaining to the advisory committee, you know, what we were doing. And Gordon Getty turned and looked at the model and he says, “Is that it?” And I said, “Yes.” He said, “That’s great. Let’s build it.” [they laugh]
CUNO: If only it had been so easy, huh?
MEIER: Yeah. So the advisory committee, you know, sort of was involved, but as far as the design was concerned, I don’t remember them having that much input.
CUNO: Right. Over the course of those months after your announcement and you were meeting with these various committees, you began to travel with the program directors, [MEIER: That’s right.] right, to museums and historic buildings in Europe and across the US. How did you choose the buildings, and what did you learn from that process?
MEIER: Well, I don’t know whose idea it was that we should all go and travel around the world looking at other institutions as though they would have any influence on what we were doing. But I think what it did do was enable us to sit around a table and sort of talk about what the program would be for each of the separate institutions.
And I guess it must’ve been John Walsh who wanted the museum to be a series of pavilions, separate although connected. And that came out of the discussions of, you know, traveling around and looking at different—
CUNO: [over Meier] Do you remember why John wanted that? I mean, I have an opinion about it, which is that they provide that kind of internal, interior experience, that concentration of looking at works of art and then allowing you to go outside to the fresh air and to [MEIER: Right. Well—] views out onto the city.
MEIER: Yeah. I mean, the ability to go inside and outside was my doing. The separate pavilions was, I think, you know, John’s desire to, you know, sort of break up the collection and make smaller spaces for each portion. And then, you know, you could sort of take the decorative arts and, you know, push it out of the main circulation stream, as it were.
CUNO: Mm-hm. Did you start with the museum? I think you said in your book that you started with it because it was the biggest building.
MEIER: Yes. Yeah.
CUNO: So—and obviously, the most public of the buildings.
MEIER: Right, yeah. Originally, my thinking about what the Getty Center should be, and knowing from the beginning that we were going to have some kind of means to get to the top of the hill, whether it be a bus or a tram, that there had to be a place of arrival that belonged to everyone. And yet the public was coming mainly to go to the museum. But originally, I had the stair sort of leading to the central garden, because I thought it said, you’re coming to the Getty Center and all of these entities are part of the Getty Center. But then we decided, quite rightfully, I think, that the main stair should lead to the museum, because that’s where the public was going.
But I thought, you know, that somehow the Getty Center was a complex. And by having the main stair lead up to the right, to the garden, that sort of neutralized each entity and one wasn’t more important than another. But I think it’s now right, you know, that it leads to the museum.
CUNO: Did Kurt Forster, who was the founding director of Getty Research Institute, so the home of the great library and so forth, did he want the public to access that building or did he want it off to the side as a separate structure for scholars?
MEIER: No, he wanted separate for scholars. [CUNO: Yeah.] He said, “Okay, we’ll provide a little anteroom off the entrance where the public can go in, but that’s it. The rest is for scholars.”
CUNO: Yeah. So it was going to distinguish itself not only by being off to the side, but round in its format as you’ve already described it. Did each of the program directors have a significant role to play in developing the aesthetic of the buildings?
MEIER: [over Cuno] Well, I’m not sure about the aesthetic. They had a lot to do with the programming. And I think Kurt was probably the most knowledgeable in terms of the aesthetic. And—well, as you probably know, you know, after I was selected as architect, the city wrote into law that the buildings couldn’t be white.
CUNO: [laughs] Right. Right.
MEIER: So—but it seemed to me that the one place we could get a little whiteness was in the center of the center, so that, you know, not everything sort of had to be beige.
CUNO: Right. Did you feel at the time like you had so many clients in this one client called the Getty Trust that it was hard to manage it all? You had the museum, the Research Institute, the Conservation Institute, you had the trust and its offices. But did it feel like separate competing clients?
MEIER: Well, it seemed like I was the only person talking to them all. They didn’t talk to one another, as far as I knew. You know, John Walsh could’ve have cared less about what Kurt Forster was doing, and Kurt couldn’t care less about what Luis Monreal was doing. You know, they just each focused on their own domain.
CUNO: Did you feel like with these individual interests that they would have compositive individual expressions, architectural expressions, and that they wouldn’t cohere as a single aesthetic experience?
MEIER: Well, it seemed to me at the time that they each were concerned about their own place and they didn’t care if it was a unified whole. But I cared.
CUNO: [over Meier] But you must’ve—you must’ve—yeah, you must’ve cared.
MEIER: Yeah, I cared. And I felt, you know, one way to do it was, you know, through the materiality, and the other way was through the landscaping. We had first, Dan Kiley as the landscape architect. Dan is probably the best landscape architect in America. But for some reason—and I honestly don’t know what it was—Harold didn’t like him. And Dan was—he was just an elegant elderly man, and knew what he was doing. And it was his idea, by the way, to plant the hillside with the grid of trees, the way it is now. That was Dan Kiley’s doing.
But after he was sort of dismissed, Laurie Olin was chosen to come in. And Laurie’s good, but I felt it was a little bit too much of a hodgepodge, as it were. [CUNO: Yeah.] This kind of tree here and this kind of tree there. And so I personally tried to give it some unification. And then again, I think Harold felt, as the architect at that time, I had too much power, and therefore, he brought in Bob Irwin to do the central gardens, which was a disaster. Disaster, [CUNO: Yeah.] as far as I was concerned.
CUNO: So, so, I’m just trying to get an understanding that there would be these discrete structures within a kind of enveloping garden [MEIER: Right.] or landscape, and that the landscaping, in your view, would then unite these individual buildings and structures. Is that right?
MEIER: Right. I felt it was important that there be different kinds of spaces, so that as a visitor’s moving around, you know, there was different vistas, different sort of garden areas, as it were. That, you know, it was part of the experience of being there.
That it wasn’t just sort of one thing. That someone could say, “Oh, did you see that little garden between the Conservation Institute and the trust office?” Where no one goes. But I wanted it as a kind of hidden space that, you know, someone could seek out and go to.
And you know, the gardens between the scholars’ study and the institute should be something different, you know. [CUNO: Yeah.] And there should be a little kind of sunken garden that the scholars, you know, could go or meet, have lunch and have some privacy away from the public.
So the gardens and thinking about the gardens had to do with making spaces, exterior spaces, that could be used. And of course, you know, with the climate there, you know, it’s not just an interior experience, but there’re exterior experiences, as well.
CUNO: Yeah. And of course, you already mentioned this, but one of the great experiences, exterior experiences of the Getty is the travertine, as well as the [MEIER: Right.] enamel paneling. What led you to choose travertine?
MEIER: Well, of course, after it was written into law that it couldn’t be white, [he chuckles] I had to figure out what it was gonna be. And I said—well, I remember I was sitting in my office and Carlo Mariotti, who had had a travertine quarry, came in to see me. And we were talking. I think I had used some travertine somewhere—you know, as a flooring material—but not very much.
But Carlo came in and he said, “You know, have you thought about travertine for the buildings?” And actually, before that, I had collected stone, samples of stone, from all over the world. From every country, we had a three-by-three piece of panel of stone in our model shop. We must’ve had hundreds of them, ’cause I was looking for the right stone. And when Carlo came in, he said, “You know, what about travertine?”
I said, “Travertine. You know, I—it’s like Lincoln Center. You know, it’s [Cuno laughs] not very interesting. And what I want is a rough-cut stone that looks like stone, feels like stone, and has texture to it.” So he said, “Well, let me make some samples.” So he invented a machine. It’s like a guillotine. And the block of stone goes on a conveyor belt, a guillotine comes down and splits the stone.
And I was there, you know, when they were trying this out. And at first, it didn’t work because it wasn’t strong enough to cut the stone. And then it was adjusted, and it came down and we got a lot of gravel. So it took some adjustment. And then we realized that we needed thick pieces of travertine, much thicker than we would use on the façade. So if we cut it into pieces which are roughly four inches thick, we could then cut those pieces into three, and you get two pieces for the exterior, and the middle piece we could use as paving, so there was no waste.
CUNO: Huh, I see. [chuckles]
MEIER: And that’s the way, you know, we got what we wanted. And after they started installing the stone, I realized there was all these fossils that you could sometimes see in the stone, from, I don’t know, 5,000 years ago, whatever. And I said to the workmen, “When you see those stones, put them at ground level, so the children walking around can see the fossils in the stone and realize, you know, that the stone comes from the earth. And the fossils range from shells—I have one with a fragment of a ram’s horn in it.
CUNO: Yeah. I’ve always thought that the travertine worked together with the landscaping to integrate the structures, not only one to another, but also within the landscape itself, the nature of the California landscape. And the proximity to the ocean and all of this.
MEIER: Yeah. We couldn’t have had, you know, a better material, you know. It has the sense of permanence that I wanted, the sense of longevity. It really became a Getty stone. And for a long time—I don’t know if they still do—Mariotti supplied the Getty with little squares of stone that you could buy in the bookshop.
CUNO: Yeah. [laughs] Yeah, well, that’s true. I think that’s still the case, but it certainly was the case a couple of years ago. Now, what about as all of this is developing and your concept for the buildings and the concept for the landscape and the integration of the two into the concept of a unified campus for Getty Center?
What size of an office did you have then? And did you imagine that you could build a staff that would be necessary to complete this project?
MEIER: Yeah, as I remember, we had about thirty-five or forty people in New York in the office.
CUNO: Yeah. So you would have to envision an office much, much larger, because over the course of the designing of the project, you would be doing other commissions, as well.
MEIER: [over Cuno] Oh, yeah. Yeah.
CUNO: [over Meier] So it must’ve been very complicated. What about the cost of the project? I think that began to escalate rapidly.
MEIER: Yeah. That’s a very good question, because when the project was announced, before we had any idea of what we were gonna do there, I guess Harold Williams said, “This is going to be a very expensive project. It’s gonna cost a hundred-million dollars.” Not knowing, you know, even what the components were gonna be. But that was what sort of stuck in people’s minds. And then—
CUNO: [over Meier] Then they realized it was gonna be much more expensive than that.
MEIER: Oh, yeah. Okay. Of course. But you know, that sounded like a lotta money, and so that number was thrown out, without knowing really, you know, what it would be.
MEIER: And then the Getty hired Dinwiddie Construction Company, who was very reliable, but had a cost-plus contract. You know, so the costs were sort of whatever they were. I mean, we had absolutely no control over keeping the costs to any point. That was basically handled, you know, by the Getty and Dinwiddie. And if Dinwiddie says, you know, “We should work weekends and pay overtime,” The Getty said, “Okay, fine.” I mean, the cost management—well, I was very critical of it, but I had nothing to say.
CUNO: You weren’t surprised when it went from 100 to 300 to 500 to 680 to—
MEIER: No. No.
CUNO: [he chuckles] And just kept going up.
MEIER: By the way, in my view, there was no reason it went to what it went to.
CUNO: Yeah. Well, at one point, he did say to you and to others that he couldn’t take a budget of more than $600 million to the trustees, so you had to keep it within that. And that meant reducing, arbitrarily, the building’s size by 12%. Do I have that correct?
MEIER: Oh. That’s right. They said, “Oh, yeah, the building’s too expensive. We want to keep everything, but cut down the cost.” So I said, “Well, the only way to do that is to make the project a little bit smaller.” [Cuno laughs] So we took all the drawings—the exact same drawings—and shrunk them 12%. And no one missed a thing. [Cuno laughs] I mean, because in the process of designing it, things had a tendency to get bigger. And actually, it’s better in the reduced state.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. So you finally got this design then hammered out and took it to the press in October 1991, seven years after you were hired for the job. And you then proposed that the opening date would be five years later, 1996. And it was only off a year. At this point, your office, your LA office, had seventy architects in it.
MEIER: That’s right.
CUNO: [over Meier] Were they all working on the Getty Center project, all seventy of them? That sounds like an astonishing number. Did it seem astonishing to you? Were you surprised that it got to be so large and complex?
MEIER: No. I mean, I would never have imagined that we would need that number of people. But to keep up—because we were building while we were still designing. You know, we were, say, working on the interiors while the building’s under construction. And besides myself, you know, Michael Palladino was critical in sort of this—the whole process. My partner Michael was on top of as much as he could be.
But then we had—you know, we had people in the field during construction. I don’t remember how many from the office who, you know, went to daily meetings with—and they would say, “Oh, yeah, we need a drawing of this or that by tomorrow.” So it was sort of an ongoing situation. And no, everyone really worked very well together.
CUNO: Yeah. So there was a complex project, you were working hard to bringing it all together, you’re managing the complexity of the design and the topography, but also the personalities of people involved. And then in 1994, I think it was, there was the Northridge earthquake [MEIER: That’s right.] that hit, and it was a 6.7 earthquake on the Richter scale. What effect did that have on the project?
MEIER: Actually, we learned, either just before that or around that time, that there was an inert fault line across the site, across the museum. It hadn’t moved in thousands of years, but people were very concerned about it. So we had to design the building with an expansion joint that runs through the museum along that fault line.
CUNO: That was something that you learned only as a result of the earthquake hitting?
MEIER: I believe so.
CUNO: Yeah. Gosh, that’s amazing. I have heard from people working around here at the time, that they were enormously surprised and impressed that so little damage was done to the buildings on the site by the earthquake was such a severe earthquake.
MEIER: Yeah. Well, I’ve always said if there’s any disaster in Los Angeles, the safest place to be is at the Getty.
CUNO: [he chuckles] Yeah. You know, quite sadly, because the fires that are still raging in Southern California, we experienced that. We were threatened by the fires, but we weren’t touched by the fires. But there was a great interest in the design that you put into place that would’ve protected the building and the art within the buildings if the fire had reached us.
MEIER: You know, I mean, there had been fires in California before. Nothing like what’s taking place now, but you know, that’s why all the trees along the slopes are noncombustible.
CUNO: I think they’re water retaining, [MEIER: Yeah.] so they don’t dry out and combust, as you say. So as you look back on the project and you remember it in such detail, how do you think of it, and how do you think that it, twenty years later, has lived up to your expectations for it?
MEIER: Well, I think hardly a day goes by that I don’t feel very proud of being a part of the building of the Getty Center. It’s just, you know, the most important thing in my life in terms of architecture. And, you know, I weep with the remembrances of so much that went on during the twelve years that we were building here.
And as you know, you know, I was very fortunate to have that little house just outside the gate, on the edge of the property. The man who owned it came to the Getty after the project was announced and said, “You have to buy my house. I’m not gonna live here, you know, next to construction.”
So the Getty bought his house. And I had been living in a hotel, and they said, “Oh, you know, we have this house. You can live in it, you know, while you’re working on the Getty.” And it was really a blessing to be living on the site during the process. And every morning at seven o’clock, I’d get up and put on my hiking shoes and I’d sort of walk around the site for an hour or two, talking with the workmen on the site.
You know, saying, you know, “Everything alright? You need anything?” You know, “How’s this going?” And you know, so it was my life. And when my children had vacation from school during the summertime, they would come out and stay with me at the house there. And we’d walk around the site on the weekends, when there were no workmen. My kids would climb on the tractors and, you know, just—they’d have a good time with me.
And I’d kind of walk around with my camera, you know, taking pictures. And I remember that they came out for the opening. And I was standing with my daughter and my daughter said, “Dad, what are all these people doing here?” [Cuno laughs] She had thought it was hers.
CUNO: Thought it was hers, yeah. Well, I can tell you, all of us who work at the Getty Center now, twenty years later, are appreciative every day of the beauty that you’ve created here and the coherence of the site and the way that it so celebrates the architectural vision that you had for it and that the Getty itself represents. So I just want to thank you personally for all that you did for the Getty.
MEIER: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I can tell you, I was so lucky, because it was really an experience of a lifetime. And I’m just grateful to have been part of it.
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.
RICHARD MEIER: They said, “Oh, yeah, the building’s too expensive. We want to keep everything, ...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824