Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Getty entrance
The Getty Museum entrance, from the tram terminal.

It’s not a maritime, military or aircraft museum, but the J. Paul Getty Center in Los Angeles is mind-blowing. Its unique position in the Santa Monica mountains, together with Richard Meier’s deceptively simple-looking and clean-cut architecture, stamp it as one of the best homes for a museum-grade collection, ever. On top of that, there are unique displays inside the museum, a beautiful artist-designed garden outside, and regular performances, lectures and other events in its Harold M. Williams Auditorium and other locations.

Stunning architecture
The J. Paul Getty Museum is noted for its stunning architecture.

The Armada Museum in Madrid and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington might well have the best-kept and most valuable inventories of military items in the world, and the USS Intrepid Museum in New York might have one of the most dramatic settings for any military museum. However, none match the balanced elegant opulence of the purpose-built Getty Center and its contents that include illuminated manuscripts, drawings, photographs, paintings, furniture and sculpture. One interesting purchase is the magnificent 1889 Van Gogh canvas, Irises, late of Alan Bond fame. Instead of being hidden in some dank boardroom or private collection, it sits well in the Center’s Impressionists Gallery, for all to enjoy.

watrer maze
The water maze at the bottom of the garden.

Oddly, there was considerable organised local resistance to the Getty before construction on grounds that varied from “ecological disaster” to “too white”. Fortunately, these objections were overcome by equal persistence, negotiation and logic.

Admission freeThe museum may be found near the I-10 and I-405 freeways. Look for Getty Center Drive exits and follow the signs. Restricted car parking is available, subject sometimes to prior reservations, at a nominal $5 cost. Admission is otherwise free. Details may be found at the web site: There is also a 24-hour information hotline on 310 440 7300. The Center is closed Mondays and major holidays, but open 1000 to 1800 weekends and 1100 to 1900 other days.

First, visitors approach the museum from a car park that leads to a tramway. Big-windowed 90-seat trams whisk people up a kilometre or so of track to the forecourt. Glimpses of buildings are seen on the way, but nothing quite prepares anyone for the shock of white marble and breathtaking architecture.

Water feature
This restful water feature quietly anchors one end of the 100-metre open spine.

The series of inter-linked buildings share common architectural themes. These themes include walls and floors faced with identically-sized squares of fossil-bearing travertine marble, rough-hewn or smoothed, together with enamelled aluminium panels and squares of glass to decorate and enhance natural illumination. Once inside the main entrance, a central 100-metre open-air spine forms a wide “breathing space” with gentle contrasts of marble and Alhambra-like water features and trees blending into a pleasing whole. There are seats and refreshment stands for visitors here. On either side of the breathing space are uniquely different buildings that house and protect the museum’s priceless artefacts.

Hanging baskets
One corner of the gardens.

The museum was commissioned by J. Paul Getty, initially to house and display the vast collection of art and sculpture that he and his family had amassed over the years. With remarkable foresight and generosity, he endowed the museum trust with sufficient funds to run the museum.

The gardens, designed not by a landscape gardener, but by artist Robert Gerwin are “a continual work-in-progress that changes with the seasons”. They are spectacular at any time of the year. They include sculptured lawns, flowering trees, bushes, shrubs and acres of flowers. There is a rare “water maze” at the bottom of a tasteful waterfall fed by recirculating water. A stream has been cleverly constructed to emit a variety of babbling brook sounds, for those visitors who have the patience to listen for them. Two huge “hanging baskets” of flowers dominate one section. At every corner, and there are many, another vista opens as yet another beckons.

Research and scholarship

Everywhere in the Getty Center, it seems, are glimpses of natural or manufactured beauty supported by standards of excellence and scholarship. They all meld discretely but firmly with functionality. Finally, the museum’s acknowledged research centre and cultural activities anchor it well into the forefront of Los Angeles’ attractions. The Getty sets a new high standard for museums, military or not.