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 modernist public architecture as soon as it opened.  Five interconnected pavilions clad in Italian Travertine stone house the Getty Museum and other programs of the Getty Trust.  The design relies upon the 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 opportunities for education, contemplation, and amusement.  The interplay of outdoor and indoor spaces and 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.

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 foundation and base 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.  

Getty Center’s Legacy

Great works of architecture respond to the spirit of place (Genius Loci) and gain strength from it. The Getty Center does not grow from the uniqueness of its site or location atop a mountain top, except for the references to two colliding axes originating from the larger urban environment. It appears to be a large scale project that developed through a combination of multiple smaller projects.

Image credit: By Jelson25 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7418879

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