American Acropolis: The Getty Center in Los Angeles.

American Acropolis: Getty Center, Los Angeles

Built in 1997, atop Santa Monica Hills in Los Angeles, the Getty Center became a symbol of large scale public architecture as soon as it opened.  Five interconnected pavilions clad in Italian Travertine stone constitute the Getty Museum. The design relies upon natural topography as well as formal interplay of geometries.  It is the American Acropolis in its grandeur and ambition. 

The Getty Center

The Getty Center is one of my favorite places to visit in Los Angeles.  The museum, galleries and public amenities offer plenty of opportunities for education, contemplation, and amusement.  The interplay of outdoor and indoor spaces under the Southern California Sun add to the magic.  Much like the Acropolis in Greece, the Getty Center is an American Acropolis built to last for time immemorial.

American Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens is an ancient citadel perched atop a rocky mountain overlooking the city of Athens.   It contains the archeological ruins of several ancient buildings of architectural and historical significance.  The campus like setting evolves from the natural topography and creates pedestrian vistas.  The Getty Center is similar in grandeur and ambition. Designed by architect Richard Meir and built over a period of thirteen years, the Getty Center is unique and memorable. 

A study of architect’s sketches and diagrams reveals how the design was developed through a formal analysis of two colliding axes originating from the larger urban environment.  The use of abstraction to organize five interconnected pavilions was not simply a formal device but also a programmatic exercise.  It allowed the architect to convert programmatic, technical, and visual requirements into a campus that can truly be called the American Acropolis.

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Timelessness and Permanence

The use of Italian Travertine stone as a cladding material gives the center a sense of permanence and durability.  The center is designed to last California’s earthquakes and frequent forest fires.  Richard Meir is known for using white aluminum panels and glass as his pallet of materials. The use of natural stone offers connection to the past as well as the future.  As a heavy material, stone is well suited for the foundation system of a building.  By using stone as a cladding material to cover large wall areas, the Getty Center creates a Hollywood type alternate reality with gravity defying stone panels lifted high above the base of the building.  

Genius Loci

Great works of architecture respond to the spirit of place (Genius Loci) and gain strength from it. The Getty Center appears to grow from the uniqueness of its site atop a mountain top.  The formal structure incorporates two colliding axes originating from the larger urban environment.  To some visitors, the museum complex appears to be a combination of multiple smaller projects.

Title Image:  Jelson25, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.  File:Aerial Getty museum.Jpg. (n.d.). Retrieved September 16, 2022, from

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