Public Art, Permanence, and the Getty

Even museums have me thinking about the fate of our species.

I finally got around to visiting the Getty Center during a recent visit to Los Angeles.  This well-known museum, built in 1997 to house J. Paul Getty’s impressive collection of Western artworks, is itself a work of art. Designed by architect Richard Meier, the complex sits atop a 110-acre hill from which visitors can see the entire city of Los Angeles, including its coastline and the mountains that surround it.  Multiple buildings, fountains, gardens, and decorative elements encircle an entrance plaza, and visitors – who park at the base of the hill, just off of the highway – are delivered up to this plaza via a computer-operated tram.

The line for the tram was a little long for me, so I walked up the hill, dumbstruck as always by the sight of unrelenting traffic on the twelve-lane north-south corridor Los Angelinos call “the 405.”  My walk gave me time to appreciate the uniqueness of the museum’s location; the view from the top of the hill is outrageous – the kind of view you might see from an ancient fortification.  It’s not exactly beautiful, but it is awe-inspiring.  I was awed by the sheer size of LA and the degree of human habitation it contains.

This realization could have depressed me, but somehow the presence of the Getty buildings themselves made me think less about human beings’ negative impacts on southern California and more about our accomplishments in the area.

How did this mind shift happen to me?  The Getty’s wise use of space and clever allusions to the past encourage a celebration of human achievement.

For starters, all of the buildings and plazas are made from travertine, a cream-colored stone that, as the Getty’s website states, “is often associated with public architecture and expresses…permanence, solidity, simplicity, warmth, and craftsmanship.”  Public art has long been a way for civilizations to express dominance and continuity; in fact, a number of Classical works of art and architecture were made of this very same stone.  The 16,000 tons of travertine used in the construction of the Getty buildings were imported from Bagni di Tivoli, Italy, a city just outside of Rome – further underscoring this reference to staying power.

Solidity and permanence are qualities that civilizations choose to express when they have settled into an area and taken control of the natural world around it.  By virtue of its elevated geographical position, the Getty already exudes these characteristics; the use of travertine in construction (think of the technology necessary to quarry and transport this amount of rock!) takes this concept one step further.

In addition to the imported stone present on the site, the central fountain contains marble boulders from the Sierra Nevada.  Removing multi-ton, seemingly permanent geological features from their natural context and placing them atop a hill in Los Angeles can be regarded as another expression of achievement, dominance, and permanence – even if the fountain waters have to be turned off when LA is in one of its frequent periods of drought.

The gardens at the Getty are far from wild.  They are beautifully constructed and maintained, but they celebrate the human eye for design more than the diversity and multiplicity of plant life.  One sight that particularly struck me was the arrangement of barrel cacti on the travertine peninsula that extends out to the edge of the Getty’s hill, like a pier jutting into an urban sea. On this peninsula grow multiple rows of the ball-like cacti – all appealingly but very unnaturally arranged.  There is a linearity to them that echoes the linearity of the museum’s architecture, and this linearity can be seen as yet another expression of dominance.  Human beings are in charge here, and human order reigns supreme in the gardens as much as in the buildings.

I loved the angles of the Getty, and I spent the majority of my visit wandering between the buildings, taking pictures of the stock straight walls and sunlight-accentuated staircases.  I hunted curvilinear shadows and admired the contrast between the hard-edged building contours and the puffy cumulus clouds that sat above and behind them.  I found the structures themselves far more interesting than the art inside them (I checked out the famous Rembrandts, Manets, Monets, and VanGoghs, but European painting has never really been my thing), and I had no problem whittling away an afternoon strolling through these created spaces.

And yet, even though I was made to consider and admire our impressive achievements, I still couldn’t quite stop thinking about this question of permanence.  Los Angeles is one of the places we talk about when “unsustainable living” is on the discussion table.  The city’s enormous population vastly exceeds its water supply.  Its homeless community gets bigger and bigger all the time.  Rents are exorbitant, and waste production is beyond excessive.  The environment has been altered to the point that mudslides occur after every major rainfall, and smog is accepted as part of the city’s personality.  And then there’s the scar of the freeway system and its accompanying nightmarish traffic.

Human beings have created all of these ticking time bombs here in Los Angeles.  But, in this same place, we have also created some mindboggling beauty.  The Getty Center is an example of that, but so are countless Hollywood movies, musical recordings, homes, gardens, and works of public art that stand as impressive Los Angeles exports.

I fear that our unsustainable choices will eventually destroy our beauty – in LA and beyond.  In other words, in our attempts to express our permanence, we may render ourselves impermanent.

And maybe that is the way of things.  The Roman provenance of the travertine tiles certainly suggests so.  There weren’t as many Romans as there are Los Angelinos, though.  So, I worry just a little bit more.


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