Controversial Getty Center Worth Billion-Dollar Billing

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The Getty Museum opened to mixed reviews, and the debate About Richard Meier's design has continued ever since. Insight Recently visited the complex to examine it with a fresh eye.

On a great hilltop overlooking Los Angeles, a new complex of six buildings that houses the J. Paul Getty Museum of Art and related institutions has roused extremes of enthusiasm and frenzied dislike. The word masterpiece and the epithet "faulty towers" both have been applied to it. Los Angelenos are excited because they are aware that their city, for all its glamour and glitz, has been short of cultural features.

Now, with hordes of tourists coming west to see their art museum, the locals are prepared to be proud. Attendance has so greatly exceeded all estimates that the attraction has had to limit entry to people with longstanding reservations. Locals eagerly ask visitors, "Have you seen the Getty? What do you think?"

Mixed reviews by art historians and architectural writers have been a jolt. Cost alone has made the complex controversial. Some observers claim the total bill is closer to $2 billion than the official $1 billion figure, eliciting the usual cry that such money should be used to help the poor. More to the point are complaints that the Getty shares more with Disneyland than with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other great collections.

Criticisms include the following: Visitors are tired by the long job of parking, then taking two separate forms of transportation to reach a gallery. Slogging from building to building on a rainy day is dispiriting. There are not enough signs telling people where to find exhibitions. Worst of all, critics say the art on display simply isn't worth all the effort and frustration.

The Getty was completed just in time to take part in the uproar that has gripped the architectural world. For one thing, there's a building boom underway in art museums. About 600 new ones have gone up in the United States since 1970. Many prominent architects, some equipped with their own public-relations firms, seem to feel their creations are more important than anything the buildings might house.

It is true that many architects have designed buildings inappropriate in size and shape for the art they showcase. In one case, an architect demanded a grand opening for his building -- vacant, with no art inside. Perhaps artists brought this on themselves by making personal expression a kind of religion, thereby defying order and authority. Architects are artists who impose order on inanimate materials, and some have come to feel that they are the only real artists working.

Insight decided to look at the Getty with fresh eyes, aware of the unfavorable comments but not overwhelmed by them. Accompanied by an art historian, and cognizant of the goals of Getty master-builder Richard Meier, we nevertheless kept foremost the layman's criteria of enjoyment and personal comfort. In short, we asked, is the Getty a pleasure or an annoyance, as some museums can be?

Our verdict? Like most mountaintop experiences, the Getty takes some effort, but it's worth the climb. Because, quite simply, there's nothing else like it anywhere.

Approaching along a freeway, the first view of the Getty is disappointing. Instead of being set majestically into its mountain setting, the buildings look irregularly scattered atop a hill. From some angles, they become invisible, hidden inside the hilltop. And they are somewhat offwhite, as if weathered. That, it turns out, was a conscious decision. Neither the trustees nor the neighbors wanted the gleaming whiteness that is a Meier trademark.

When the base of the great hill is reached, one of the Getty's innumerable "sherpas" tell visitors what to do next. Those who have come by car are directed clown into a 12-story garage that has drawn some of the complex's most caustic complaints. If that idea seems unappealing, one had best come by bus or taxi, for that permits a prompt transfer to an elevator leading to the "tram" level. …