A Place In The Sun

IF YOU'VE DRIVEN UP THE 405 through the Sepulveda pass in Los Angeles in recent years, you've seen the Getty Center taking shape. High on a hill above the whizzing traffic, battalions of giant cranes were silhouetted against the brilliant California sky. The six buildings in the complex gradually materialized. Bulldozers moved tons of dirt; a tram rail was laid to bring visitors from the 1,200-car garage at the foot of the hill to the complex at the top; 4,000 live oaks were planted to dress up the slope. Now, nearly $1 billion later, the Getty is finally ready for its opening this December. With a major museum and various allied facilities, it's the costliest art institution ever built in America. The Getty is bound to give a huge boost to L.A.'s cultural aspirations; already it has become a key symbol for a city bouncing back from riots, an earthquake, fires, mudslides and O.J.

A project this vast and this visible prompts some grousing, too. Locals wonder if the Getty will be an accessible cultural Acropolis or a fortress of elitism. (Actually, the museum will be free, but, this being L.A., you'll have to pay to park and you'll have to reserve a spot in advance.) People shake their heads over the astonishing sums of money lavished on the project. When the eccentric tycoon J. Paul Getty died in 1976, he left a block of Getty Oil stock, now worth more than $4 billion, to his small museum in Malibu. Under U.S. tax law, the Getty Trust has to disperse $170 million a year, three years out of four, to maintain its nonprofit status. So in the early 1980s, the trustees began to dream up the idea for the center. They decided the Getty's collection of antiquities would remain at Malibu, but a new museum, with an expanding collection of European painting, sculpture, decorative arts and photography, would be built. They planned an institute for scholars in the visual arts and humanities, along with a grant program and other institutes for education, conservation and digital information. They bought a 742-acre mountaintop site and began the hunt for an architect.

Richard Meier had just turned 50 in 1984 when he beat out a roster of 32 international architects to win what's been called the commission of a lifetime. He recalls in ""Building the Getty,'' a project diary to be published next month, that when he heard he'd won the huge job, he ""felt a fleeting moment of triumph'' and had a glass of wine to celebrate. The moment didn't last long, because Meier soon discovered how many people would influence the design--among them, the trustees, of course, the museum's curators and the center's worried neighbors in Brentwood.

But now that the Getty is finished, his sense of triumph ought to return. What Meier has managed to create is more than an assemblage of elegant modernist buildings and pretty gardens; he's conjured up a powerful sense of place, an oasis of civility in the midst of L.A.'s anonymous sprawl. Starting with the tram--a Disneyland ride that whooshes you up to High Culture land in five minutes--the Getty is an experience that both connects you to the surrounding city and provides a refuge from it.

Meier is standing on a sweeping terrace off the Getty Museum, the centerpiece of the U-shaped complex. There are few places in L.A. from which you can see such a spectacular panorama, from the San Gabriel Mountains to the east, to the high-rises of downtown L.A., to the Pacific sparkling off to the south. "Seeing Los Angeles is a big part of the Getty," says the architect, and he's made sure the visitor will glimpse vistas all over the complex, from the central plaza to the many terraces and outdoor stairways, the huge glass windows, the walkways and gardens. Meier is a classic modernist, known for gleaming white buildings based on a grid. At the Getty, his forms are enlivened with curves, recesses and overhangs, as well as courtyards and slivers of green.

For the museum, he used stone, a rough-cut travertine, as well as his trademark enameled panels on the exteriors, not in his usual white (deemed too bright in the L.A. sun) but in a soft beige. The effect of these materials outside and in is richer than anything Meier has done before.

Inside, the stunning galleries are a bit old-fashioned. They are beautifully proportioned (some have 25-foot ceilings) and many are skylit, bathing the art in indirect natural light. The Rembrandts, for example, which look so dark in most museums, look golden here. John Walsh, the museum's director, insisted on these classic galleries, which are interrupted here and there by access to a terrace or a corridor of glass with a lovely view. Walsh and his curators have added to the eclectic collection of masterpieces, buying up top examples of Pontormo, van Gogh, CEzanne. The museum brought in Thierry Despont, who designed the interiors of Bill Gates's new house in Seattle, to consult on the galleries. Meier, the diehard minimalist, struggles to be diplomatic about some of them, like one for tapestries that Despont did in a bordello-red damask wall covering.

For the last dozen years, the New York-based Meier has spent two weeks of every month in L.A., living in a small ranch house on the site. The Getty will soon bulldoze that place; the office that Meier set up in L.A. has shrunk from 100 employees to 30. He's caught in a classic irony--the moment a project is inaugurated, the architect is elbowed out--but it's especially bittersweet after so many years. As he showed a visitor around on a late-summer day, he nodded hellos to construction foremen and fretted over what was no longer in his control: the signs on walls, the stuff piled on the pale maple desks his firm designed for the offices. In the library of the circular Research Institute, the perfectionist in Meier longed to reshelve books according to size. But these are small things. Some larger issues still gnaw, especially the height restrictions that limited his vision of creating a modernist Italian hilltown. And he won't even talk about the extravagant maze and water garden that the conceptual artist Robert Irwin is putting next to his museum.

But mostly, the California dream has been glorious. ""It's a terrific place for an architect,'' he says. ""The relationship of the building to the land and the ways you can use the outside as part of the inside.'' Meier loves Frank Lloyd Wright--and in the Getty Museum, where, for example, the stone walls continue from outside to inside, you see Wright's legacy. But you also see Meier's connection to Richard Neutra's modernism in California. And then there's the dazzling light. Meier's buildings can look chilly, but here the golden light washes over his spaces and casts deep shadows upon his pristine walls. In the Getty, Meier has really made his place in the sun.

A Place In The Sun | News