Friday, August 25, 2006


A felicitous blend of old, new

Open, airy Getty Villa expansion is restrained and refined but still embraces the present.
By Christopher Hawthorne

Times Staff Writer

"Something about the place embarrasses people," Joan Didion wrote of the Getty Museum in Malibu, which opened in 1974 just up the hill from Pacific Coast Highway.

A gleaming replica of a Roman villa, the museum leapfrogged the emerging postmodernism of 1970s architecture, with its loose and often ironic quotation of classical forms, and went straight for verbatim transcription. Critics dismissed the building as vulgar — though, as Didion pointed out, Roman culture was plenty vulgar itself.

More than three decades later, an expanded Getty Villa has begun welcoming small groups of invited visitors, with the long-awaited public unveiling set for Jan. 28. The reopening of the villa site — always much-loved despite its infamous lack of parking — is easily the most anticipated architectural event in Southern California since the debut of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall two years ago.

With the old-master paintings and gilded furniture now comfortably installed in Richard Meier's 8-year-old Getty Center in Brentwood, Boston-based architects Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti have reconceived the Malibu location as a showcase for Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities — a collection that has become the center of legal controversy in Italy and Greece over charges that museum officials knowingly trafficked in looted artworks.

The expansion is in many ways more ambitious than the original 1970s villa project: It refurbishes the museum building while adding an amphitheater, auditorium and cafe, along with new research and conservation facilities. At $275 million, it is certainly more expensive.

But it is hardly going to embarrass anyone.

On the contrary, the addition operates like an anti-icon. As a means of disguising its bulk, it burrows into the canyon walls that rise on the edge of the site. The carefully choreographed and richly textured pathways that lead, rather indirectly, from a new parking garage to the galleries are lined by high walls faced in horizontal layers of concrete, red porphyry stone, travertine and bronze. They are meant to suggest the striated walls of a huge archeological dig that has unearthed, of all things, the 1974 villa.

The overall effect is one of tasteful refinement and restraint — so much so that the architecture, at times, brings to mind a Calvin Klein boutique al fresco.

But in carving out a space of literal and architectural independence for the much-maligned villa building, Machado and Silvetti make timely assertions about authenticity, camp and the definition of history in Southern California.

Even more significant, the design provides a useful road map for future development in ever-more-crowded Los Angeles — a fresh, thoughtful means of figuring out how to deal with the baldly striving architectural landmarks that abound here.

The villa project has been buffeted by conflict and controversy from the start. Early in the design process, owners of houses bordering the site sued to keep the Getty from adding an amphitheater. Eventually the two sides reached a compromise that cut the capacity of the amphitheater to 450 and restricted its performance schedule.

More recently, the one person who could accurately be called Machado and Silvetti's client, Getty antiquities curator Marion True, was caught up in controversy on two fronts: Charges that she conspired with art dealers to buy looted art for the museum, which are now being heard in a Rome court, and suggestions that a loan she received to pay for a vacation home in Greece violated the Getty's ethics guidelines. After helping guide the villa expansion for a decade, she resigned seven weeks ago.

The very act of hiring Machado and Silvetti seemed to guarantee that the architectural reception of the new villa, on the other hand, would be uproar-free. The pair, who met as young men in Buenos Aires, have in recent years perfected an approach mixing a firsthand understanding of the field's cutting edge with respect for urban history and, perhaps more important, an old-world politesse. With a small record of built work, the architects have been known more as power brokers than trendsetters.

Indeed, rather than treat the 1974 villa with avant-garde aggression, or try to tamp down its visual impact, Machado and Silvetti have instead identified it as the biggest single artifact in the museum's collection — if also the least authentically antique and the most decidedly immovable.

At the heart of the architects' plan is a series of paths, draped in greenery, that carry visitors from the new garage on the lower section of the site, near PCH, through an open-air entry pavilion and up along the western edge of the property. The trip offers carefully framed glimpses of both the ocean and the restored villa. It terminates in a plaza connecting the base of the amphitheater with a new entrance to the galleries on the villa's long western facade.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the revamped site is that the 1974 building, designed by the Los Angeles firm Langdon Wilson Architects with historical consultant Norman Neuerburg, seems to be flourishing as a result of this renewed attention. With a cafe, bookshop, atrium and auditorium encircling it, the villa is not just more open but more comfortable in its own skin. Asked to do less, it appears capable of doing more.

Inside, the look is both airier and, in terms of the materials and rich, dark color scheme Machado and Silvetti have chosen, more stripped down and masculine than before. The double-height atrium just inside the new front doors is now topped by a retractable opening in the ceiling, flooding it with light. Taking advantage of the fact that sculpture can handle more natural light than paintings, the architects have also added skylights to many of the upper galleries.

With display cases and elaborate inlaid floor patterns designed by the architects, the galleries show many of the antiquities to dazzling effect. A new stairway connecting the villa's main floors helps clarify the circulation patterns inside, but with its bronze and glass detailing is also entirely too precious.

With their design for the Malibu site, Machado and Silvetti have completed Southern California's first example of a new wave in museum architecture: expansions that defer to older works of architecture without giving up a claim on the present.

The approach is plain to see in Renzo Piano's design for the Morgan Library in New York and in plans by Steven Holl for the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo. In those projects, both under construction, the new architecture makes no effort to copy the forms of the existing buildings but also buries most of its square footage underground.

Whether these designs will mark a new maturity in American architecture when it comes to mixing new and old or a period of conservatism — or a bit of both — remains to be seen.

For Los Angeles, the significance of the Getty Villa expansion is plainer to see. The site, to be sure, is hardly a thickly urban location. It doesn't offer the opportunity for serendipitous encounter that is a prerequisite for a truly civic space.

But we have to take our corners of the public square where we can get them around here, even if they are tucked away on estates near the ocean and dipped in nostalgia. And compared to the symbolism of Meier's citadel-like Getty Center, the Machado and Silvetti scheme represents a heartening turn toward a new kind of architectural engagement — one that is both active and thoughtful — with local landmarks.

If it seems odd to think about a confection of a building such as the 1974 villa as a landmark, well, welcome to Southern California. The region is full of such buildings, pieces of architecture that loom large on prominent sites and appeal to the public more for nostalgic or atmospheric reasons than for aesthetic ones.

Too often we have treated those buildings — Myron Hunt's Ambassador Hotel offers the sorriest recent example — with a combination of disdain and neglect.

In other instances we have celebrated them, at least in a superior, ironic sense, as billboards advertising our own pride in L.A.'s refusal to bend to the demands of traditional good taste.

But if we want to create a public sphere here that will actually draw people out of their cars — as opposed to a cityscape filled with shiny, look-at-me attractions that we can gaze at through our windshields — we are going to have to admit that there is a place, even an esteemed one, for smart, well-designed architecture that is content to fill in the city's gaps.

Indeed, as building sites go, gaps are just about all we have left.

Machado and Silvetti's approach in Malibu argues that a mature and workable city will contain several layers of architectural history, some masterfully designed, others banal and all of them historically legible. Even Las Vegas, of all places, has begun to learn this lesson as it grows.

In Los Angeles — embarrassingly enough — we still struggle to absorb it.

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