The Art of Compromise: The Paradox of Place at the Getty

by Andrea Leigh

copyright July 2000

Irregularly scattered atop a hill in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Getty Center is an impressive collection of glass, metal and travertine with corners that project outward towards expansive city views framed and controlled throughout by the sharp angles of architect Richard Meier’s equidistant grid design. A mesh of squares and circles that interlock like Legos, the architecture stands erect, yet standoffish, a bold corporate statement lacking a central theme.

Once you arrive at the Getty, you are forced from the start to abandon your car, and either take a fifteen minute walk up the hill or ride a Disneyland-like tram up to a welcoming plaza. Meier’s design, as he envisioned it, was intended to give visitors the feeling that they were being elevated out of their everyday experience while, at the same time, providing them with a powerful sense of being in the center of Los Angeles.

The theme of rising up to the Getty is reminiscent of climbing up to the ancient Greek Acropolis—the central edifice defining the polis or city-state, the seat of democratic government. However, in the case of the Getty, this Art-Acropolis, is not the showy, dominating, patriarchal space of the Greeks. Instead, the Getty’s square columns co-exist with the gentle curves of the stark white rotundas and earth tone rough travertine suggesting the feminine. These contrasting elements link together the sky (rising upward) and the earth (reaching downward). Connecting this natural order further, the campus sits comfortably into the surrounding landscape with the central rotunda situated on the spot where two ridges on the hillside intersect. Volume and space are equal suggesting that there is harmony and balance.

While I was studying theater at UCLA nearly two decades ago, I took a course in the Classics Department titled, “The Female in Antiquity.” The class was extraordinary as it provided a unique perspective regarding Greek society that had not been directly discussed in the theater history courses I had taken. Primarily utilizing excerpts from extant Greek texts, the course emphasized how separate the lives of the men and women of ancient Greece were and the dominant male culture’s emphasis on the power of the phallus. This prominent masculine symbol was evident in our examination of the ancient Greek Acropolis, an architectural masterpiece that provided a stunning visual representation of the supremacy of male dominance and separate existence away from the confines of the home. With its phallic columns rising upward, stark open simplicity, and high-on-the-hill design, the Acropolis is in character with the ancient Greek male existence of spending an inordinate amount of time living out-of-doors. Physical or mental, the Greek man’s space was one of control, hierarchy and conquest—a sprawling and full space, while a women’s space was confined to the oikos, or home, where she was relegated to the invisible private sphere—a confining and empty space.

This male/female split in the social order was also reflected in Greek myth and ritual, where male sky gods (e.g., Zeus and Apollo) ruled from the heights of Mt. Olympus and were worshipped openly in grand and spacious temples. In contrast, female fertility deities (e.g., Demeter and Kore) were relegated to the earth and void of the Underworld, and their worship was conducted in darkened shrines and shrouded in mysteries.  An important exception to this rule is the figure of Athena, a powerful, non-domesticated virgin warrior goddess who was produced without a mother from the head of Zeus. It is the temple of Athena, after all – the Parthenon – that dominates the Acropolis. But Athena is no ordinary woman. As the patron goddess of the city, her power is not confined or limited to the feminine realm of home and hearth but to the masculine world of political action and military power. As such, she does not represent a balance of male and female elements but has become fully masculinized in the artistic and architectural space of the Acropolis. Though female in gender, she is totally male in function and form.

This idea of being invisible or removed or of sinking towards the ground rather than elevated to the sky is a recurring theme in the Getty’s design. Visitors exit the tram at the top of the hill, and must decide to go up to reach the galleries (to the sky) or go down to reach the gardens (the earth). The fountain in the main courtyard contains massive, blue-veined marble boulders, native bedrock shaped by nature (or by “Mother Earth”) contrasted with the imported travertine split by humans (or shaped through brute, domineering force). A walk in the garden is achieved by following a gentle maze of circular pathways that contrasts sharply against the steep linear steps that reach up to high walkways that connect the gallery floors. While zigzagging down into the bowl at the south end of the garden towards the reflecting pool, the Getty buildings rise high above taking command of the skyline.

Additionally, there is a massive fountain formed in an erect oval shape framed by travertine walls while above water hemorrhages profusely down into a bowl through a circular vent that opens to the sky. There are rooms contained within the Center that are actually carved below inside the mountain suggesting a kind of subterranean netherworld tucked comfortably out-of-sight and out-of-mind. If you come towards the Getty from the 405 freeway below, there is never an instance when its massive structure can be seen in full view, and, at times, the buildings seem to disappear once approaching a corner.  Both visually and structurally, then, the Getty – unlike the Acropolis - attempts to achieve a balance of male and female elements without sacrificing one at the expense of the other.

Meier’s vision that the Getty be designed with the intent to inspire, a place set apart from the normal and routine, is also true of Greek temples as well as magnificent natural environments like the Grand Canyon. In each instance, the power of place enriches our imagination and sense of self so that we often feel transported to an extraordinary place. All sensory elements combine to create a sense of wholeness and completeness. However, if any of the parts are compromised, then the experience of the moment can be jarred.

As an environmentalist representing the Sierra Club in restoring natural quiet to Grand Canyon National Park, I was referred by one of my fellow “quiet commandos” to the work of philosopher and environmentalist, Jack Turner. In an essay titled “the Maze and the Aura,”1 Turner describes the desire of contemporary society to reject natural order and, instead, accept its reproduction. Processes are diminished as human beings attempt to spatially connect their world closer to mass tourism than to the authority of the natural world. Furthermore, Turner observes that in our modern world creating a harmonious balance of both natural and human-made elements is often compromised by a disruption in aura. Noise interrupts and nullifies the feeling of being out-of-doors just as sounds emanating from the surrounding city disrupt the Getty’s unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This concept can be illustrated by taking a walk directly to the Getty’s south end where you are confronted by a simple rectangular portal, between two pavilions of the museum, that gives the illusion of opening into thin air, and then leads to a wonderful long parapet, from which you can look across to the ocean or down to an elegant cactus garden. If you look above, you can sometimes see the moon framed by nothing but blue sky. Ideally, this should be an experience of spiritual elevation or contemplation – the feeling of wholeness – but the aura is too often marred by the deafening noise from the airplanes above.

            Although the Getty’s natural surroundings have been compromised by the noise of the city, the museum does provide a space for reflection and inspiration. Walking through a gallery and becoming acquainted with a masterwork firsthand can be an exhiliarting and uplifting experience. The Parthenon, however, is a different matter. Tourists from all over the world flock to Athens to view this massive Greek structure, thereby diminishing its ancient tradition which, in turn, aids in a loss of aura. The importance of ritual, authority, and most importantly, as Turner points out referring to an essay by Walter Benjamin, “the quality of its presence is always depreciated.” Turner defines this uniquely human experience as passing into the realm of exhibition. Today the Parthenon is less a sacred temple than it is an object on display, fragmented, like the Getty is, by the sights, sounds, and presence of the city that surrounds it.



1 Turner, Jack, “The Maze and the Aura.” The Abstract Wild (Arizona: University of Tucson Press), 1996.