A Lavish Place In The Sun

Recession? What recession? With the biggest endowment in the art world-$3.5 billion--the J. Paul Getty Trust is the Croesus of modern cultural institutions. So while everyone else is hunkered down, sweating out the sinking economy, the Getty raised the curtain last week on its long-awaited design for a $360 million hilltop headquarters in Los Angeles. Straddling a ravine in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains, the six-building cultural campus, designed by Richard Meier, will command a spectacular view of the city on one side and the Pacific on the other. An assortment of modernist buildings, bunched together on the landscaped slopes, with balconies, terraces, gardens and a circular pool, the model of the complex looks like a resort, which, in a way, it is--a paradise for connoisseurs and intellectuals.

Getting the Getty was probably the most coveted commission for an entire generation of architects. But once Meier won it, why did it take him seven years to finish the plans? "It was the Getty's intention to involve the architect in the whole program," he explains. Under trust laws, the Getty has to spend around $150 million each year-and it took a couple of years just to figure out what kind of space it needed to get rid of all that money. The biggest structure will be the new J. Paul Getty Museum with a cluster of five sun-filled gallery pavilions, linked by bridges and courtyards. (The other Getty Museum, the ersatz Roman villa in Malibu, will hang on to the great antiquities collection; this museum will show the paintings, drawings, photographs and decorative arts.) The other buildings in the complex include the circular Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, a kind of "secular monastery," as director Kurt Forster has put it, devoted to the interdisciplinary study of art. Then there will be a building for the art-conservation institute and art education and grant programs; another for administration; an auditorium, and a restaurant.

There was another obstacle to finishing the design: the neighbors. Basically, the Brentwood Homeowners Association "didn't want to see it, hear it or smell it," says its president Bill Krisel. The site made Meier think of an Italian hill town and he wanted to have "a variation of height" in the complex. But the building permit laid out 107 conditions, limiting height and setting stringent setbacks. "I was in a three-dimensional straitjacket," says Meier. "The restrictions were onerous." And even the Getty can't write a blank check. After the first construction estimates came in, the entire project was cut back 12 percent. The $360 million cost is for construction only; the total cost, including land and architectural and legal fees, could be double that figure.

Meier, with his pristine, white Corbusian forms, has been a very consistent architect, whether designing elegant modernist houses or such museums as the High in Atlanta and the Kunsthandwerk in Frankfurt, Germany. But the Getty commission seemed to be the chance to leap in a new direction. "I've never done anything like this," says Meier. The New York architect was also dazzled by the West Coast: "The golden light of California is intoxicating," he says. Meier cites such early modern architects as Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, who came west and created free-flowing spaces that joined the inside with the outside, when he explains how he's opened his airy cubes and curving forms to the landscape. But anyone looking for a radical departure from his cool, clean style won't find it here. Meier even once said he wouldn't use his trademark white porcelain enamel on the exterior of the complex, but he is using it--in off-white-on all the buildings except the museum (which will be clad in a pale rough-cut stone). Yet Meier's sleek modernism may look right at home in southern California. Whether the late oil baron J. Paul Getty, who made all this lavishness possible, would have liked it, we'll never know. But the rest of us can wait and see when the real complex opens-in 1996 at the earliest.