Monday, February 24, 2003

Getty Center Garden

Getty Center Garden in Los Angeles, California by Robert Irwin, 1997

Since its completion in 1997, the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California, has received much press and praise, primarily centering on Richard Meier's building designs. Equally important, though not afforded as much attention, is the landscape around the buildings, particularly the Central Garden by artist Robert Irwin. If any aspect of Irwin's design has received attention, it has been the tension between Meier and the artist over the latter's credibility and eventual design of the garden. At over 130,000 square feet, the garden plays a major role in linking the buildings while also drawing attention away from them. It is this aspect, and Meier's desired control, that detracted from the worthiness of the landscaping and Central Garden, something that should have been collaborative and fruitful.

Any semblance of control at the Getty Center can not be solely contributed to the architect, for the Center can best be described as a campus, a building type that strives to become an oasis free from outside distractions. After taking the quarter-mile tram ride up to the Getty, one notices the difference between this place and the one he or she just came from. There are not street signs, billboards, telephone wires, anything that one can associate with urban life and society. The immaculate white and travertine buildings among the pristine landscaping is all one finds apart from tables, chairs and umbrellas for enjoying the respite from life below. In this controlled environment, it is ironic that one of the most popular experiences for visitors are the many panoramic views of Los Angeles, whence they came.

Although Meier designed the buildings with great care and patience over a great amount of time, they exhibit his typical approach, based on rigid geometry and monochromatic tone to accentuate the play of light through the volumes. Fine buildings in their own right, together they are too much of the same. One realizes that an occasional Meier building is refreshing, especially in an urban context full of variety and the distractions that are missing at the Getty. Given that realization, though, the spaces between the buildings become that much more important, and the Central Garden is the most important of those spaces.

Occupying a natural ravine between the Museum and the Research Institute, the Central Garden lies on one of the two main axes of the Center. The first axis (shown on plan) extends down the length of the Museum buildings, from the tram drop-off and Museum entrance to the south promontory. The second axis, of the ravine, also starts at the drop-off, but angles off from the Museums, terminating at Irwin's colorful masterpiece. Traveling from the drop-off to the Central Garden sets up a difference between Meier's and Irwin's thinking, the former creating a physical axis between his buildings so the visitor can walk in a straight line while the latter creates a visual axis, where the visitor can see the end but must meander back and forth across the axis to reach the final destination. And once there the visitor is constantly persuaded to move around, shifting their perspective on the garden and the buildings.

Unlike the buildings, whose material palette is limited to marble, aluminum, glass and steel, the Central Garden uses a multitude of materials, both natural and built, including grass, water, stone, trees, plants, flowers, cor-ten steel, and rebar, imaginatively used to create arbors, as seen at left. The plant species range from hydrangeas and roses to the azaleas that float in the pool that terminates the visual axis (the axis is also symbolic as the water starts as rain and moves down a stream to the pool). All the different plant and flower varieties help to create patches of color that come to life against the mute backdrops of the buildings. Nurtured by southern California's year-round warm climate, the changes between season are subtle, yet apparent. Each aspect of the gardens furthers the Getty Center's sense of being an oasis from the outside world, which comes at a price as 24 full-time people maintain the landscape, four alone for the Central Garden.


  1. This article doesn't mention Laurie OLIN who designed much of the landscape.

    1. Yes, that was something I was unaware of at the time.


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