Stephen Rountree served as the director of the Getty building program, working closely with architect Richard Meier, Getty staff and committees, and neighborhood councils during the construction of the center. In this episode, Rountree talks about the challenges he and his colleagues faced throughout the thirteen-year process. This is the second 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.
STEVE ROUNTREE: J. Paul Getty really felt that a museum needed to be a seductive place, in terms of its setting, its landscape—that you needed to draw people in. And I think from the very beginning that was part of our thinking.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with former executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Getty, Steve Rountree. This is the second episode of Getty at 20, a three-part series that looks at the Getty Center on the twentieth anniversary of its opening.
In the last episode, I spoke with architect Richard Meier about building the Getty Center. Richard had to navigate a complex range of individuals and committees as his designs of the Getty developed, and Steve Rountree played a critical role in that process. To a great extent, Steve was the face of the Getty Center in the 1980s and ‘90s. He served as director of the Getty building program, overseeing the design and construction of the Center while working closely with Richard and Harold Williams, the Getty’s president. After the opening of the Getty Center, Steve continued to serve as executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Getty.
I spoke with Steve about the many challenges he and his colleagues faced in the thirteen years it took build the Getty Center.
Steve, thanks so much for joining us on this podcast.
ROUNTREE: Happy to be here.
CUNO: We’re gonna look back today at the creation of the Getty Center, which opened twenty years ago this year, as the first home of the Getty Trust. You were part of the Getty even before the Getty Trust was formalized, having been hired as the deputy director of the Getty Museum in 1980. That is, before there was a concept of a Getty Trust. And you were named director of the Getty Project Building Program in 1984, the year that Richard Meier was chosen [as] the Getty Center’s project architect. So you’ve known the project since the very, very beginning, even before the architect was chosen. Those were heady years. The Getty Trust, under its first president and CEO, Harold Williams, with whom you worked very closely, was taking shape as an organization comprising different specialist programs, more or less what it’s like today—a museum, an art historical and humanities research institute, a conservation institute, and a foundation.
And it was building those programs with staff and collections, while at the same time, hiring an architect, writing an architectural program, and then beginning to build what is today the Getty Center. What was it like in those earliest years when you learned that the Getty was going to receive the vast bulk of Mr. Getty’s estate, and that this alone was going to compel significant changes in the institution. What did it feel like to you and to those with whom you worked at the time?
ROUNTREE: Well, that’s a—that’s a great question. I—so I was recruited to the Getty in 19—late 1979, actually, because the board felt that they wanted to begin to prepare for the final settlement of Getty’s estate. It had been tied up in legal problems for a number of years, and Ronald Getty, one of the sons who was actually a trustee, was suing the Getty Trust for not getting enough of a cut of the estate.
CUNO: Mr. Getty dies in ’77 or—?
ROUNTREE: ’76, he die—
ROUNTREE: Yeah, so he had passed away, and then so for four years or so, it had been all snarled up in various kinds of family disputes and—so I was brought there for that purpose. I still remember it was a stormy, rainy day, and the Pacific Coast Highway was flooding. And I went out to the Getty Villa, what is now called the Getty Villa, which was then the Getty Museum, and the six board members sat lined up adjacent to each other in a row of chairs, with one chair across from them, like a witness being interrogated.
There were wall lights but the room was very dark. It’s now a gallery, but it was sort of an anteroom of somebody’s office then. It was a very strange thing. And the director of the museum then was a wonderful man named Stephen Garrett. But I learned after the fact that the board had pushed him to hire me, to create this position. He didn’t really want this position.
And on top of that, Getty’s private financial guy, a famous trustee named Norris Bramlett, who controlled the money for the museum and was really Getty’s righthand financial guy in Los Angeles, he didn’t want this position either. But there were a group of board members—Otto Wittmann, John Connell, and some others—who had pushed to create a kind of business guy to come to the museum and begin to get the place ready for whatever would come out of the estate.
But at that time, we didn’t know how much money it was. I mean, nobody at the Getty Museum had a good sense of the magnitude of the wealth that might come because the board and the lawyers had kept that very close. It wasn’t really clear.
CUNO: Was there a member of the board who was particularly close to Mr. Getty at the time?
ROUNTREE: Yes. I think Norris Bramlett was particularly close, and he was the man that we, Stephen and I, when I was deputy director, we had to go—their offices were in downtown Los Angeles, at 1 Wilshire, so in the heart of downtown. We had to go and plead our case for the budget every year, and to get allocations from Getty’s, you know, sort of personal funds, to support the museum every year. Norris was close, Federico Zeri was on the board, who was—
CUNO: An Italian connoisseur, yeah.
ROUNTREE: Italian connoisseur who had been advising Getty when he was alive on collecting paintings; Stuart Peeler from Musick, Peeler & Garrett, the law firm that handled his estate; and Harold Berg who was the president of Getty Oil Company at that time, who I can’t think was so close to Getty, but certainly had known Getty well during the years when he was working at the oil company and Getty was there.
But Otto Wittmann had been brought in as a kind of dean of American museum directors, retired museum director from the Toledo Museum of Art. And at least my impression in the early days—and this proved to be more and more increasingly true—was that Otto, as the only person on the board who really had any art museum background, was the guy who kind of guided the staff and became a sort of unofficial resident at the Getty Museum.
CUNO: He was retired at that time to Santa Barbara, is that right?
ROUNTREE: I think at that time he lived in Westwood. He later retired to Santa Barbara.
CUNO: I see.
ROUNTREE: But he’d retired from Ohio. And he still had a home in Toledo. But he was actually paid as a consultant, in addition to being a board member. And so his office was on site.
CUNO: Yeah. We should remember that the Toledo Museum [of Art] is kind of on a scale of the Getty Museum at the time, [ROUNTREE: Right.] and conceived as a kind of masterpiece collection, like the Getty Museum must’ve conceived itself as a masterpiece collection.
ROUNTREE: That’s right.
CUNO: And he, as I recall, wrote an important early maybe draft program for what the Getty Museum might become, or what the Getty Trust might become.
ROUNTREE: Right. In those early days—kind of let’s take the period 1980–84, but in those first four years that I was there. So I was hired as the deputy director. We began the nucleus of beginning to expand the library, and we acquired the Bibliography of the History of Art from Williamstown, Massachusetts.
That was one of the early moves to kind of begin to get more breadth to the Getty’s activities in research and so forth. And Harold was appointed roughly a year after I started.
CUNO: That’s Harold Williams, the first president of the Getty Trust.
ROUNTREE: [over Cuno] Harold Williams, sorry, the first president.
ROUNTREE: Harold Williams was appointed in 1981. I’d been there about a year. Harold met with us all in the ranch house, which was the Getty residence on the site in Malibu, in the living room of J. Paul Getty’s home, a home that Getty never spent a night in, I think we’ve all verified that that was true. But the home was always ready for him. And he used it for entertaining from time to time. But we’d moved offices up there.
Harold met with us. He began the process of kind of thinking through what the Getty would be in the future. In I think late 1981, early 1982, on a plane flight to Toledo, Ohio—Stephen Garrett and I were on the plane; Harold was flying first class, we were in coach—Stephen went up and met with Harold for a while, and came back to his seat and said, “I won’t be getting off in Toledo. I’m going on. I’m done here.” [they laugh]
And at—in Toledo, Harold said, “I want you to be the interim director of the museum while I look for somebody else, and Otto will help you.” And Otto and I then began to work together. And Otto would convene in the tearoom garden at the old Villa, Otto would convene the couple of curators—Burton Fredericksen; Annamekie Holbrook, who was the head of the library at that time; Gillian Wilson, who was the curator of decorative arts; George Goldner [curator of drawings]—and we would talk about what the Getty might become.
CUNO: [over Rountree] That was effectively the staff.
ROUNTREE: [over Cuno] The staff, yeah, the senior staff. And there was no connection between that group and Harold Williams and Nancy Englander, who was really the person that was charged with marking out the future and shaping the future of the research and art history side of the Getty. Not the museum side, but the kind of art historical side. And honestly, not surprisingly, that group sketched out conservation, art history, research, major library, some sort of philanthropic grant program.
I think Otto and that group came to some of the same general conclusions that Harold and Nancy did.
CUNO: Did you know at that time there was going to be a singular campus for the Getty Center, that all these pieces would be brought together again?
ROUNTREE: No. I think in the period of ’82, ’83, before John Walsh arrived as the museum’s director, it wasn’t clear to us out there in Malibu. And I’ll come back to that. So out there in Malibu, we had a feeling of being—that somehow downtown—and at that point, Harold Williams and Nancy Englander and a woman named Lonnie Duke, who was his other sort of program development person, who went on to head the education institute here, we felt they were off doing their thing. They weren’t talking to us. We felt isolated, we felt disregarded. [they laugh] And—
CUNO: Did anybody come to the museum then? Were there visitors that were coming?
ROUNTREE: Yeah, visitors were coming.
CUNO: Oh, they were coming.
ROUNTREE: Yeah, visitors were coming. But you know, we had a fairly robust publication program, mostly around antiquities and decorative arts. We had, you know, the beginnings of decent education programs.
And that was happening. But there was a sense that there were these overlords downtown. But then John came. John Walsh came, I think, in 1983-ish, as the director of the museum. I went back to being the deputy director. But at that moment in time, Harold and Nancy brought me in—essentially working with them to help create the administrative infrastructure and the physical locations for the Getty Conservation Institute and the Getty Art History Program, which now called the Research Institute.
CUNO: So was that a change of job for you, from the museum deputy director to the building program—
ROUNTREE: No, I was doing both. So I did both. So I was still the deputy director of the museum, which I reported to John Walsh on. But then I was working to help Harold find these places. And it was really Nancy who was the person I was working with. There was one employee at the Getty Research Institute, a scientist named Frank Preusser, who was a German conservation scientist from Munich.
He wasn’t even here full time. But we rented a big building in Marina del Rey. I hired an administrative person—still remember her name, Allison Berry—to help create what this building would be. It was really just Frank Preusser who worked with me to figure out what was in this building and what kind of labs and everything else.
And then we moved on to the Research Institute, and we rented an office building in Santa Monica, on Fourth and Wilshire—several floors of it became the home of the Research Institute. And we laid out all the library facilities. And in that building, it was Tim Whalen, who’s now the director of the Getty Conservation Institute, who worked with me. He was then the administrator for the fledgling Getty Research Institute.
CUNO: So was there any discussion at all of where this Getty Center might be?
ROUNTREE: By that point, the trust had identified the fact that it was going to seek to build this campus.
ROUNTREE: Somewhere. And again, we little folks out there in Malibu at the museum, we were vaguely aware that sites were being looked at. And John and I would go, kind of after the fact, to see a site somewhere that had been kicked around and discussed.
But as I recall, the two main sites that were really under consideration were a site in what today is Playa Vista; then was the old Hughes Aircraft facilities, which was completely undeveloped at that time. And today it’s Silicon Beach or whatever they call it. And the site of the Ambassador Hotel, which today is a big high school or a combination of schools for LAUSD, which then was a kind of derelict building and everybody was afraid to touch it or do anything with the—
CUNO: Since Robert Kennedy was killed there.
ROUNTREE: Robert Kennedy was assassinated there and it was just vacant. But it was a huge parcel of land, and the hotel and the Coconut Grove restaurant and everything had been—was quite removed from Wilshire. But that would’ve placed us on Wilshire Boulevard, in reasonable proximity to LACMA.
And MOCA was kind of at the other end of the street, if you think of it that way. So there was some logic to that. But both those sites were flat. And then as the story goes—and I think this has been verified—Rocco Siciliano, a board member, went to a speech by Ronald Reagan at the Century Plaza Hotel. Waiting to pick up his car, was standing next to a man named Tom Jones, who was the retired head of Northrop Aircraft in Los Angeles, and lived in Bel Air, across from where the site is now. And Tom talked to Rocco about the fact that he had this hilltop in Brentwood that he had been working to develop as a housing community, an elite upper-class condominium-type community. And it was too frustrating to him and the homeowners were awful and so forth, and he was trying to get rid of it.
And Rocco introduced to Harold this idea, and one thing led to the other, and the Getty Center site then came into the view of the trustees. And Rocco, at that time, I know was either chairing a site selection committee or a building committee—something along those lines. He had been a cabinet member for Nixon and for Gerald Ford, and he was loosely in the real estate business, so he had his eye on the ball for this kind of stuff.
CUNO: So this is before, obviously, an architect was chosen. Was the site actually chosen before the architectural [ROUNTREE: Yes.] selection process began?
ROUNTREE: Right. So the Getty Center site was acquired before the architectural selection process began. There are really three parcels that are part of the Getty Center site. Eighty percent of the buildings are on the first parcel that was owned by Tom Jones and had at least some right to develop as a building site.
Then UCLA owned a small parcel of land that they had received through donation, which is just north of the Getty Center, that they used as a meteorological station and botany station for students. But it’s landlocked; there’s no way to get to it, other than through—
CUNO: Climb the mountain.
ROUNTREE: Through the—climb the mountain through the Getty. Harold either engineered it or somehow was aware of the fact that UCLA was gonna put that land up for auction. And so we had to go to auction and make sure that we bid very high in order to acquire that little knoll, which is the knoll that you see when you stand, you know, in the middle of the Getty Center and look directly to the north.
And then after we committed to the site and began to work on the architectural selection, Harold and the board wanted to protect the ridgeline, all the ridgeline through the Santa Monica Mountain hills that are north of us. And one man owned all the land that wraps around Mount Saint Mary’s College. And his name was Morris Zuckerman, and he wanted to sell all of his holdings in Brentwood at once, about 700 acres. And so we bought all that land. That assured that there wouldn’t be homes or other structures coming up the ridge in the view line north of the Getty Center other than Mount Saint Mary’s.
CUNO: So how many months did this all take place?
ROUNTREE: I think all that took place over about eight or nine months in 1983.
CUNO: [over Rountree] So it was rapid.
ROUNTREE: Pretty rapid, right. And so at that time, I was still at the museum as the deputy director, still working with Harold and Nancy on getting the early structure in place for the future programs of the Getty, and the architectural selection process began. At the same time, Harold and Nancy retained first, a man named Bill Lacy, who’s an important player in these early days. And I think he’s retired to Texas now, but—
CUNO: He used to be head of the Pritzker Prize committees, wasn’t he? The—
ROUNTREE: He was the head of the Pritzker Prize committee, and he was at that time.
ROUNTREE: He was president of Cooper Hewitt.
CUNO: Oh, right.
ROUNTREE: Then later he went on to become the president of SUNY Purchase, which is a very arts-related institution. Had a background in architecture and design. And somehow Harold and Nancy knew him or came in touch with him, and he came in to help them shape and guide this process of selecting an architect.
And it was Bill who brought in somebody to help—and I wasn’t involved in this—to help loosely, very loosely, map out how big a place you could put up here, how much that might cost. And those early loose things, of course, came to haunt us for twenty years, because the original estimate was $100 million.
And I’ve read from Richard Meier—and I think Richard’s right—that it was a number that was big enough to get your attention if you were an architect, but it had no basis in reality connected to anything. And the man who began to con—and I’m sorry I don’t remember his name; I’m sure we can find it somewhere—who worked with them to kind of conceptualize how you might put something up on this hill, but there was no connection then to the neighbors and to the community and to the Los Angeles Planning Commission or anything like that.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, my memory is that among the members of the selection committee, including trustees, there was a museum director, Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum [of Art]; some distinguished academics; an architectural historian, Reyner Banham; and the New York Times architectural critic, Ada Louise Huxtable. That’s an august if complicated and probably internally contradictory [ROUNTREE: Yeah.] committee of people together. So was there any way to develop a dynamic in that committee to choose an architect?
ROUNTREE: Well, so just to back up for a second, I wasn’t on the architectural selection committee, just to be clear about that. I was standing on the side, looking in. Harold—before he’d selected Richard Meier and while the search process was still going on, Harold and Nancy set off to look for somebody to run the Getty Center project. I believe they tried hard to hire a man whose name, I believe, was James Snyder, who had done the recent expansion of MoMA.
CUNO: Yeah, he went on to the Israel Museum.
ROUNTREE: Right. And he did the tower and all that.
CUNO: [over Rountree] Yeah, right, yeah.
ROUNTREE: But then one day Harold called me and said, “We want you to do this.” And I said, “No, I don’t wanna. I don’t wanna do this. I don’t want to be involved in buildings and that kinda thing for a long time.” “No, you’re the right person to do this. You understand what we’re trying to achieve here. everybody trusts you to do this. And it’ll only take four or five years. And meanwhile, I’ll move you into being the chief operating officer for the Getty Trust,” which he eventually did. So I agreed to do that.
CUNO: So the committee had already been selected…
ROUNTREE: The committee had already been selected.
CUNO: …you come in next, yeah, right.
ROUNTREE: And they had been working. I do think that Harold’s style, Harold Williams’ style, always was to look at the biggest set of possibilities you possibly could. So I think the fact that it was such a range of architects, that it reflected Modernist and Postmodernist and local and international and all sorts of people was just reflective of Harold’s instinct that you get the most options on the table.
CUNO: These were among those in the sort of semifinal list, ultimately, right?
ROUNTREE: Yeah, on the semifinal list, which I think was still twenty-five or thirty. But it was a very eclectic group.
CUNO: So you weren’t privy then to the conversations they had where they began to talk about the qualities of an architect they were looking for? Those early conversations of the selection committee?
ROUNTREE: Not in the committee, no. [CUNO: Yeah.] I wasn’t. Right.
CUNO: Did you hear or understand or did you come to imagine what those qualities were like? Or was it only when they got to a point where they were, let’s say, down to the twelve architects, from whom they ultimately chose three.
CUNO: And then one, with Richard Meier. Was it only in that latter part of the process by which it became more generally known what they were looking for?
ROUNTREE: Yes, I think so. I mean, I think—you have to remember that in this period of time in the, in the early eighties, it was, you know, as you know as well as anybody, it was a time of a lot of museum expansion and new museums and new cultural institutions. So there was such a live conversation going on within the arts world, visual and performing arts. And so there was an opportunity and certainly a desire to have something remarkable, something that would be an icon of Los Angeles. I think that was definitely in Harold’s mind. But something that would be extremely response to the hilltop. Very early on, Harold—
CUNO: [over Rountree] To the landscape itself, yeah, yeah.
ROUNTREE: To the landscape of the hilltop and this place in the city. And I know that that became a defining concern of Harold’s. I mean, once we acquired the property, then I think Harold in particular fell in love with it and really revered it and wanted it to be respected by the architect.
CUNO: I interviewed Christopher Hawthorne, the architectural critic of the LA Times, and he pointed out that at that time in the early eighties, there was, in the dynamics of the city and its development and its growth, a tendency to move from the center of the city, from downtown westward.
CUNO: And so the Getty Center happened to be west. It happened to be not only west, but just on the 405, the great north-south artery, and just at the intersection with Sunset. So in a sense, not only is it a site chosen for the beauty from that one sees, that it has and that one sees, of Los Angeles from the vantage point of the Getty. But it’s also centrally located for a development westward of the city center.
ROUNTREE: Yeah. I used to say at the time, ’cause so many people were critical of the Getty for choosing that location and not going downtown or not being in the center of Museum Row or whatever. And I used to say that if you were a car dealer, you would absolutely kill to have this location, because you were right between the mass population of the Valley, the South Bay, downtown, West Los Angeles. I mean, it’s an incredible location. And so it made sense. And as hard as it is to believe, in those days, which isn’t that long ago, but in those days, the 405 freeway wasn’t such a traumatic experience as it is now. So you could, you know, Sepulveda, you could actually get here from—you know, from Northridge and Thousand Oaks and places like that.
CUNO: I mean, I was, as you know probably, I was living in Los Angeles, working at UCLA at the time, and I do remember all the sort of criticism of the Getty for seeing to withdraw from the city— [ROUNTREE: Right.] from the city itself and be up on this hill, as kind of an ivory tower. And I always think now, from my vantage point of being at—working at the Getty and knowing that we have 1.6 million people who come to Getty Center itself…
CUNO: …and together with the half a mil at the Getty Villa, the Getty Museum is the largest, most attended visual arts institution west of Washington, DC. So obviously, this vision that Harold and you and others had for the Getty Center has panned out. I mean, in the sense that it wasn’t going to be just the beautiful site itself, but it would be the views from the site out onto the ocean, onto the mountains, onto the city. And people love it for that reason, as much as they like it for the works of art that are in the museum.
ROUNTREE: That’s right. And of course, that—if you read J. Paul Getty’s thoughts about Malibu when that was developed and his thoughts about art, he really felt that a museum needed to be a seductive place, in terms of its setting, its landscape—that you needed to draw people in. And I think from the very beginning, that was part of our thinking in this.
CUNO: Well, let’s get back to the architect selection process, [ROUNTREE: Yeah.] because they went from, let’s say, thirty-three down to three, and the three finalists were Richard Meier, Fumihiko Maki, and Jim Stirling. And they went from those three to one with Richard. Did the staff, like yourself and the program directors, as the programs were being developed at the time, come to understand the process by which the architects were being selected?
ROUNTREE: Well, we came to understand the process, but we didn’t—I don’t think we felt that close to it. [he laughs] So when you got to those three, at that point, those three were handed off to a board committee. And it was the board committee that was gonna make that decision. So the architects selection committee had done its work, and in theory, had presented three, fine, capable, wonderful architects. And the board committee, with Harold leading it, of course, was supposed to decide.
The board went out and revisited some of the same architectural projects and the offices of the architects that the committee had done previous to them. I didn’t go on those visits. I had just been appointed in the middle of that board process. But it was seen as a board exercise at that point in time. But I was close to board members, and in subsequent years, of course, I’ve heard a lot from board members. And I think it’s fair to say that the dynamic was that Stirling was ruled out by the board fairly early.
CUNO: For stylistic reasons, perhaps?
ROUNTREE: No, I think there was concern about their interactions with him on a human scale and the sense that he didn’t work well with the community. At that point in time, we already knew that there was gonna be some haul in front of us in terms of community relations and building support within the community for the project. And I don’t think it was stylistic, although I do think that the committee in general, and Harold in particular, gravitated toward Modernist architecture, as opposed to Postmodernist, which is where Stirling was. Something cleaner, crisper. So it came down, really, to Maki and Meier. And I do think there were definitely members of that committee—I’ve heard from all of them over the years—that were strongly inclined towards Fumihiko Maki. But the deciding factor clearly was Meier’s experience working in America, Maki’s lack of experience in America. Maki—
CUNO: I think, if I’m not mistaken, the only building designed in this country, in the United States, until that time was a small gallery addition at Washington University in St. Louis.
ROUNTREE: Yeah. I mean, just he had very limited experience. And under questioning, he was clearly going to work from Japan. He would set up a small office here.
CUNO: As Richard was willing to commit to building an office here in significant numbers.
ROUNTREE: [over Cuno] Right. Well, Richard—to be fair, Richard was willing—at that point; it changed, but—was willing to commit to moving his practice to Los Angeles. He was gonna move his entire practice to Los Angeles, and his wife and his kids, and be here. That was his commitment to Harold. And I think that became defining. The board, in the end, voted, and they voted for Richard Meier.
I think they were influenced by Harold’s inclination towards Meier, in terms of Meier’s—Meier wrote a couple of letters that I think have been published that are talking about the light in LA, the site, that were inspiring and convincing. And the fact that he was clearly willing to commit a huge amount of his professional life and time, [CUNO: Yeah.] which he did.
CUNO: And it wasn’t it in that year in May of 1984, which I don’t remember whether that was after the appointment was made, the selection was made, but that in any case, Richard wins the Pritzker Prize?
ROUNTREE: Yeah. Right. No, it was right before, and that clearly was the icing on the cake. He had the Pritzker Prize and that was a confirmation that—and you had Bill Lacy leading the Pritzker jury. So you know, it’s interesting. And Ada Louise Huxtable was on the Pritzker jury, and she was part of the architects selection committee. But the board—Rocco Siciliano chaired that process and—
CUNO: He’s a board member.
ROUNTREE: [over Cuno] He was a board member and he chaired that selection committee, and he voted for Richard Meier. And I’ve talked—he’s still alive and I’ve talked to him a number of times over the years. And he said, you know, that in the end, it was Richard’s commitment to the time in Los Angeles, the sense that he would be charming and supportive of community relations issues, which turned out to be not completely true.
But actually, being fair about it, he was pretty good. And so he got the job. And I remember a week or so after that, flying to New York to meet with him. We had a dinner set up in New York. I was this thirty-something building program guy, and I thought I was, you know, definitely the guy that was gonna work with Richard full time. He had to cancel dinner with me because his daughter was sick, which I took as a good sign that he was really committed to his family. We met the next night. But six months later, his wife divorced him. And that put off coming to terms with Richard and the firm about his contract and everything for about a year, because he suddenly couldn’t move to LA because he didn’t wanna leave his children in New York.
And we negotiated then a different situation where he set up a significant office in LA, which of course is still here and doing great work, with Michael Palladino and other people. And Richard pledged to be here frequently, every month, for at least a couple of weeks, a promise he kept throughout the project.
CUNO: So he gets chosen, he’s selected. Ultimately, a contract is written. The project begins to move forward. There’s a design committee that’s put together. And on that design committee, among others, is Frank Gehry.
CUNO: What was that like?
ROUNTREE: That was a little bit later. So I was head of the building project by that time. Harold, I believe, created a design advisory committee, talking to me, for the purpose of keeping the board at bay. It was a way to keep the board from meddling in the design itself. Which I think was successful and was wise.
However, it was really frustrating for Richard and amazing to watch. So you had Frank Gehry, Ricardo Legorreta, Ada Louise Huxtable, Irwin Cummins from Indiana, who—
CUNO: [over Rountree] Oh, yeah, a big patron of the architects, yeah, yeah.
ROUNTREE: [over Cuno] …a big patron of contemporary architecture, Frank Gehry, and a few others. And that group would meet intermittently, essentially looking over Richard’s shoulder. I think they all sensed what an awkward situation it was. I think the architects like Frank Gehry and Ricardo would never tolerate such a situation on their projects. Richard felt it was really difficult for him to sit and listen to them criticize or offer commentary. But they met often—you know, three, four, five times a year—during the course of the design of the project. And one memorable meeting I remember in the early design of the façade of the project, Richard actually proposed—and I’m sure there are drawings in the Getty Research Institute—quite an elaborate array of colors. You know, stone of green, blue, dark brown. You know, it was really variegated.
CUNO: With the idea that the ultimate building might have multiple colored stones [ROUNTREE: Yes.] or that he’d just choose from among those, a single colored stone?
ROUNTREE: No, it was an elaborate façade, all developed all around with striations and variegations of color. And that was the idea, that it was going to be [CUNO: Wow.] very multicolored. And—
CUNO: It’s like a Jim Stirling building.
CUNO: Oddly enough.
ROUNTREE: [over Cuno] And it was pretty appalling to that group. The design group had a really hard time understanding where he was going and had he lost his mind? And so that was a particularly difficult session. I remember once where Frank leaned over and drew something. Said, you know, “What if you did this?” And Richard said to Frank, “I don’t know how you can make your hand draw a line like that.” Because Frank’s line was looping and Richard’s lines are all very—
So it was—I think it was incredibly awkward. It was awkward for me, as the project director, to manage that process and manage that group. We—whenever we met, everybody was tippy-toeing around and not sure exactly what they were to do.
CUNO: Was there a program for the building at that time or—? It seemed to me [ROUNTREE: Oh, yes.] that the program was evolving simultaneously.
ROUNTREE: They came in—I don’t know the exact timeline, but they came in a few—definitely a few years into the project. Of course, for the Getty Center the program was hugely problematic from the start because you had this adolescent museum and then these infant programs that had, you know, as I described before, had barely begun a year or two in advance of that.
I mean, the Conservation Institute probably had twenty employees in a building out in Marina del Rey. There was a little library in Santa Monica. But we were imagining whole programs. And you had Luis Monreal for the Conservation Institute and Kurt Forster for the Getty Research Institute. So the challenge was to create a program for a place that didn’t exist.
And I had assembled a small staff of people led by Tim Whalen and a woman who you know named Gloria Gerace, who began to build, from piece by piece by piece by piece, this program. Out in the museum, John Walsh and his group had such a head start, because they had collections, they had a vision for what it was gonna be, they knew what basically, they wanted to achieve. But these other programs. And politically, in the—
CUNO: [over Rountree] And where was Richard Meier in this process? [ROUNTREE: Well, so—] Was he parallel to it or involved in it?
ROUNTREE: Richard was involved with it, but frustrated by it and bewildered, because we had these young people who he was fairly dismissive of. And so at one point in around 1985, when we were first going, he proposed to take over the programming. And he brought in a firm led by a memorable character named Maurice Perrault, a wonderful name, whose experience was pretty much in programming hospitals. And he was an incredibly anal and exacting person. And he—his lieutenant was a woman named Dr. Janice Urice. I still remember all these things. It’s coming into my head. They were incredibly constipated and anal people. And they tried to push the Getty programming into little boxes and forms and, you know, computer questionnaires and things like that.
And we were at a moment of inventing a place that had never been this kinda place before. We didn’t really honestly know what we were trying to do. Harold had recruited these larger-than-life people like Louise and Kurt to envision and imagine what they would do, and they didn’t wanna be confined to boxes and forms and so forth. And Gloria Gerace was particularly effective, I think, at working with the temperament of the people on our staff to begin to flesh out these programs. And it was a very iterative process with Nancy and Harold and Lonnie Duke and Luis Monreal and Kurt Forster, while we began to develop what the programs would be. But one of the political constraints then, which we broke down later—and you see it today at the Getty Center—every program wanted their own building. And then it became that every program at least wanted a very prominent front door.
And in the beginning and for eighteen months or so, the conservationist, who was actually under the museum, physically under the museum, plugged into the museum’s conservation functions.
CUNO: You mean the design for what ultimately would get [ROUNTREE: Yeah.] drawn. Because at the time, the Conservation Institute was in Marina del Rey at the time.
ROUNTREE: Marina del Rey. It was a separate entity, but physically…
CUNO: [over Rountree] In the early incarnations of the design.
ROUNTREE: …it made sense—it seemed to make sense to have them…
ROUNTREE: …structurally together on the site. But politically, Luis Monreal and John Walsh were not at all comfortable with each other.
ROUNTREE: And so the Conservation Institute wanted out from under the museum. So then it kinda gravitated. And we had a separate building there. The art history information program, which doesn’t even exist anymore was oriented towards computer technology, wanted a separate building the Education Institute wanted a separate building. So we had to work all through all that and I had to convince them and convince Harold that we needed to minimize the number of separate structures on the site.
CUNO: Yeah. I’m just thinking that one of the other players in this was the landscape itself, the site.
ROUNTREE: [over Cuno] Right, right.
CUNO: And the site was a very complicated site, with lots of ravines and bits of hilltops and things. So it wasn’t like a flat land on which you could move little cubes of buildings around as you planned it. You had to take into account this three-dimensional topographical form.
ROUNTREE: That’s right.
CUNO: It was very complicated.
ROUNTREE: Very complicated. And one of the defining moments of the Getty Center project, speaking to that point—so at the time LA had a very strong planning department downtown, headed by a man named Calvin Hamilton, who somehow—either by edict or by law, I’m not sure, but he was very dictatorial. And we had a meeting. This would’ve been probably ’86-ish. I think it was called the “1986 red line.” We had a meeting with him in his office, with the architect. And he, sitting at a table like this, he literally took a red marker and drew a line all around the Getty Center site at a certain topographical elevation and said, “You will not move outside of that.” And it was almost totally arbitrary. It could’ve been another line down, another line up. He just picked it. And the “red line,” as we called it, became inviolate. You couldn’t build anything outside of that. You couldn’t penetrate out on the hills; you couldn’t go down any further. And so that became the sort of parameter in which Richard had to think about the buildings and design the buildings.
And then subsequently, we negotiated with the community and the planning commission, a very complicated idea about how the measure the heights of the buildings, so that we could take advantage of canyons and dips in the topography, that the height is measured from that red line. So no building could be more than—I’m forgetting; I should know this, but—forty-five feet from the red line. But as you can see all along the freeway side of the building here, you could plunge down into a ravine with basements or loading areas and so forth.
The neighbors were mostly worried about what the top line of the building would be on the horizon. And I think this was a good thing in the end, that there was some arbitrary limit that was applied, and you couldn’t just begin toying with ideas beyond that. Today it’s not this way; the planning commission today is a very passive and easily manipulated bunch of people, I think. But in those days, Cal Hamilton was God. He drew a line—that was the line. It wasn’t—and everybody accepted it. The neighbors, the Getty, everybody.
CUNO: Wow. So you mention the neighbors. The neighbor s are gonna play a big role in [ROUNTREE: Yeah.] your life for some period of time. How soon were they aware of what was being considered as a design? And how early did they have a voice in the process?
ROUNTREE: Well, I think they had a voice in the process very early on. Nancy Englander and the law firm Latham & Watkins began, before I was even fully engaged in my role as director of the building program, began meeting with neighborhood groups, mainly the Brentwood Homeowners’ Association and the Bel-Air Homeowners Association, which were the two main constituent bodies. So this would’ve been ’84. [CUNO: Oh, that early.] As early as ’84. Beginning to take their temperature and talk about it. I still remember when Harold hired me for the job, he said, “We’ve made good progress with the neighbors. That should be over with soon.” [they laugh] And it was about seven years later, I think, that we finally got the use permit approved.
The neighbors in the Brentwood community were a huge, huge part of my life for all those years.
CUNO: And what were the issues? You mentioned the height issues. But was it also just about the construction mess and the noise and disruption and what kind of trucks would move through the neighborhoods and those kind of questions?
ROUNTREE: I think the main issue fundamentally for Brentwood, which is really our neighbors to the east of the Getty Center, was privacy. At a planning commission hearing, a man stood up and he said, “You know, whether it’s a football stadium or museum, it’s all the same to me. It’s beer cans in my backyard in the morning.” And we were just stupefied.
CUNO: How do you answer that?
ROUNTREE: But it was privacy. It was people literally worrying that we could see them in their bathrooms. There was a really intense worry about their backyards, their bathrooms, that we’d have thousands of visitors who would be peering down into the community. And so much of what guided their concerns were not allowing people out on the edges, landscaping to protect their privacy.
Then there was a whole concern about drivers, errant drivers, thinking they could somehow find a shortcut to the Getty and avoid Sepulveda and drive up through the neighborhoods, which was preposterous, because there was no way to get up the hill from anywhere else. But it became a huge concern, was—
CUNO: How many meetings did you have with them? How long did it take to get to them?
ROUNTREE: [over Cuno] Oh, hundreds. Hundreds and hundreds. I mean, I—it sounds like an exaggeration, but in the end, there were many associations. There was the Brentwood Homeowners’ Association; the Bel-Air Association, which cared mainly about traffic on Sepulveda, and later, noise from the tram, which became an unexpected problem for us later; Brentwood Circle Homeowners; Kenter Canyon; [CUNO: Wow.] Bundy and so forth.
CUNO: And you were the point person for the Getty.
ROUNTREE: I was absolutely the point person, yeah. And that was something I hadn’t anticipated. And I remember getting a call once; I remember not returning a message. And I will say this publicly. I didn’t return their message, from a woman name Charlene Baskin, who’s related to Baskin-Robbins. Didn’t return her call, didn’t return her call. And it caused that a whole group in Brentwood Circle, which is south of us, to form, out of concerns that we might have nipped in the bud. So it’s a good lesson in life.
However, I think all along, our relations with the neighbors were incredibly honorable, I believe, and we were honest with them always. I think the Getty today has the benefit of the fact that we didn’t— however it turned out, they know we didn’t lie to them about anything.
ROUNTREE: But we had meetings where Richard Meier would go with me to—in the dining room of May Friedman, in the Brentwood Circle Homeowners’ Association. And he had paint chips in his coat jacket pocket. And we were negotiating that night, the color of the panels on the building. Because they were fearful of Richard Meier, “refrigerator white,” they called it. And Richard would pull out one chip and put it on the table, and it would be white, white, white. And then that wouldn’t go, and then he’d have another chip that would just be slightly, ever so slightly—so it was negotiating things like that, negotiating—we had an endless amount of time on the sound of car tires driving up the roads and whether those could be mitigated by the walls that you now have at the Getty.
CUNO: Right, right.
ROUNTREE: But of course, you end up dealing with individual homeowners, because they don’t trust the homeowners association, but they have their own problem and they want just to know whether your gardeners are gonna, you know, trample over some tree that they value.
CUNO: So you had these parallel things going on. You have the design of the building.
CUNO: I mean, not always parallel; sometimes they intersected, because there was the influence. But the third one was the landscape itself. So there was landscaping around the Getty Center for the reasons you’ve already described, and also the appearance generally and so forth. And a big part of the landscape was is the garden, the garden designed by Bob Irwin.
CUNO: And I know there’s a famous number of stories, no doubt, about how Bob was chosen over Richard’s desire to have another landscape architect involved. Talk about that and how that process developed.
ROUNTREE: Well, so it was fairly late in the process. I’m gonna say in the late eighties, early nineties. For the area that we now call the central garden, Richard’s design was broad expanses of travertine stone and a bridge. A bridge over that connected the Research Institute and the museum.
At a staff retreat with Harold and John Walsh and Kurt Forster and others, that we had from time to time, Kurt Forster deserves the credit for advancing the idea, a very deliberate intellectual idea, that with the garden, we had an opportunity to introduce a completely different aesthetic sensibility into the project; that there was a chance to do something there that would be in dialog, to use Kurt’s terms, in dialog with Richard’s architecture, and be different from it.
And we all got excited by that idea. We actually engaged two artists to work on the central garden. One was Robert Irwin and the other, ironically, was James Turrell. The two of them had been close as young men, but had been estranged from each other for a number of years, had not talked and worked together and so on. And at that time, and for about a year and a half after, we worked with Jim Turrell to develop four or five chambers—light rooms, I would call them, experiences—at the head of what is now the central garden and under the little plaza, the plaza that’s between the museum and the Research Institute.
And Bob Irwin got the garden itself. Richard was furious at the whole idea. And he’s still furious at the whole idea. But I felt it was a brilliant idea and incredibly interesting and exciting. And I was the prime person working with both of them.
CUNO: Because you’d survived the neighbors.
ROUNTREE: ’Cause I’d survived the neighbors and I’d survived Richard to that date. And it happened that early in my life, James Turrell and I lived in a little mini-commune together, when we were both in our twenties. Turrell’s thing, which was astonishing, would’ve been astonishing if he’d been able to pull it off, eventually just—the structural issues involved at that portion of the site and the cost of figuring out how to do what he wanted to do just got the better of us.
And he was also very slow to respond to things and just kind of working at a pace. He was very involved with Roden Crater at that point in time. And so eventually, we had to pull the plug on his part of the work. But he developed beautiful drawings and I hope all that stuff is in the archives.
Then Bob launched off on what we have today, which I think is just this incredibly detailed, rich, design effort on his part, down to the veins in leaves and the colors of different leaves. And he traveled all up and down the Pacific coast with a couple of people that he trusted looking for really rare plants or interesting plants, native plants.
That process, though, opened up a whole new process with the neighbors, which was one of the more silly processes, in that you can’t see the Bob Irwin’s garden at all from the community, but the neighbors kept wanting us to show them designs and visual computer models that would show what they would see from Sunset Boulevard. And the answer is nothing. You can’t see anything.
And no matter how many meetings we had, they couldn’t believe that you wouldn’t see—’cause they could see the garden when they looked at the design, they couldn’t believe that you wouldn’t see it from their neighborhood.
ROUNTREE: But you don’t. And—
CUNO: [over Rountree] It’s a little counterintuitive that neighbors would be concerned about a garden, as opposed to a building. Well, I’m sure they were concerned [ROUNTREE: Yes.] about the building, but the idea that they didn’t want to see a garden at all.
ROUNTREE: They didn’t wanna see the garden at all. And I think they had never paid enough attention to Richard’s bridge. I think the bridge that Richard had would’ve been a much more—potentially intrusive in the neighborhood. But you know, the garden, which is obviously sunken and into a ravine, is really—we always said it’s the perfect solution for you. But for me personally, working with Robert Irwin for those three or four years that we worked together, and going to his studio in San Diego, and watching the man think through, with his Coca-Cola and his Detroit Tigers baseball cap—I just love the guy and it was one of the great experiences of my life to be able to work with him.
CUNO: Now, you titled your essay in a book about the building of the Getty, A Concert of Wills. At the time, the project must’ve felt like a contest of wills.
CUNO: But ultimately, in the end, looking back on it, it still was a concert of wills for you?
ROUNTREE: [he laughs] Well, I think, you know, it was a project involved with incredibly strong personalities everywhere. John Walsh. We haven’t talked about the galleries, but the whole contest between Richard and John, Richard starting and being sure from the first day, that he would eventually prevail in having white Modernist galleries like the High Museum; John from the start, sure that he would prevail, which he did, in having galleries with fabric on the walls and color and wainscoting and so forth.
Bringing in Thierry Despont, who’s—as a kind of design mediator and—so on every part of the project, we’re dealing with really strong personalities. But my job was to mediate amongst them and be sure that we moved things ahead. I haven’t said it yet, but it’s important to say that Harold improbably, from day one, backed me up.
You know, he was always behind me. Richard tried often and early to end run me and go to Harold. Harold just rebuffed all that. He would listen to Richard and then say, you know, “Work it out with Steve. Steve’s gotta feel comfortable with this.” And it was that was with the program directors as well. You know, he was a strong presence. He backed me up, and it enabled us to get things done and to get decisions made. I do think it was a contest of wills, in the sense that we had very strong people who cared deeply about what they were doing. I mean, my experience working with Richard Meier prepared me later for my experience with Frank Gehry, and then later with Achim Freyer, who was the director of the Ring Cycle at the LA Opera. These kind of people require such determination and confidence in their own taste, in their own judgement. So it was a spectacular experience for me to be able to work with them.
CUNO: Of course, there’s that famous Maysles brothers film called A Concert of Wills of the process of building the Getty Center and all the meetings that you’ve described so accurately. What was it like to have the film crew around you all the time?
ROUNTREE: Well, they were here over a course of at least a decade of the project. Not from the very beginning. And Nancy Englander deserves the credit for wanting to do this, really as an educational—in the beginning, I think as an educational tool for future architecture students.
That was sort of what was behind us. But number one, Albert and David, who passed away during the course of the project, the two brothers and their partner Susan Froemke became part of the family. They’re such soft, gentle, people. But it truly—you would have, you know, microphones in your face and camera guys behind you.
They traveled with us to Europe when we were looking at different building projects. We spent a lot of time in Italy, looking at hill towns and gardens and things like that. I think they actually enhanced the overall experience of the project for all of us. If anything, I think it made everybody play together a little bit better and be more attentive and focused when we were having discussions, because you were standing in the Tivoli Gardens and having a conversation with John Walsh and Kurt Forster and Richard Meier, but there was two guys with microphones in your face.
But it went on for so long that—and it was intermittent—we’d have them at key sessions, and they filmed the memorable session where Richard Meier and Bob Irwin got into it with each other. I think for all of us, it was just such a valuable experience having Albert Maysles by your side the whole time. He was such a thoughtful guy. And then at the end, when they did all the editing and worked through—I mean, they had, you know, hours and hours. I don’t know if you have all that stuff in the archives, but—amazing amounts of footage that wasn’t in the final cut of the film, that I think the Getty got ownership to in the end. I’m glad we did it and I certainly use the film a lot. My grandchildren—my grandson was assigned a project—I should tell you this. My grandson was—who’s in sixth grade, was assigned a project, and they all had to write on an iconic building of Los Angeles. So he chose the Getty Center, and he interviewed me. And I made him watch the film to see his grandfather much, much thinner, with more hair.
CUNO: Okay, so now it’s twenty years later.
ROUNTREE: Yeah, twenty years.
CUNO: Getty Center is opened in ’97. We just finished 2017 and we’re into 2018. Looking back twenty years, what are you most proud of? About the Getty.
ROUNTREE: I was up here a couple of months ago. I have five grandchildren. I was up here with four of the five grandchildren a couple months ago. It was a beautiful day. I was very proud and happy to see how full the place is and how people were enjoying Bob Irwin’s garden and sitting on the grass and enjoying it in the way that we imagined they might, because again, these things are conceived without knowing how this is actually gonna work.
I think I’m proud of the fact that the Getty Center has become such a compelling place for people to go to in Los Angeles. I always hear that people come here and find it a very rewarding day for themselves and their families, from what they see in the galleries and what they experience just being here with their friends and their families. The fact that we have created a space here that allows you to understand Los Angeles and the topography of Los Angeles to the oceans and the hills. I’m proud of having lasted through it.
One story I tell is that early on when we first started the project we had a picnic up on the site, the raw, undisturbed, untouched site, right about the place where the promontory is in front of the museum today, that sticks out there. Richard had his two kids and I had my two kids. His son and my daughter were both in kindergarten at that time. When we opened the building, my daughter was at Princeton and his son was—and they flew. They had to fly here from college. So, you know, we were yoked together, Richard Meier and I, for thirteen years, our kids’ entire school experience. And I think we ended—I feel for sure, we ended as friends. And I know Richard believed that I cared about the architecture and the aesthetic decisions that were being made.
We haven’t talked much about money, which people always wanna talk about. But it’s hard to believe today that we cut many, many things out of the project, and cut money in many, many, many ways.
CUNO: Well, it’s a—it’s a major, major triumph and you should congratulated. Thank you for all the work you did on the project and thank you for the podcast and recounting, as you have.
ROUNTREE: [over Cuno] Thank you for having me. I really enjoyed talking about it. Thanks.
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.
STEVE ROUNTREE: J. Paul Getty really felt that a museum needed to be a seductive place, in terms...