New Getty Center Shouts Strong Message from Mountaintop Institution Aims Not Only to Engage Community but to Be a Cultural Resource for the World

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To an outsider, the Getty Center's $800 million new mountaintop complex may seem quintessential L.A. - huge, obviously expensive, with a great view of both sides of the hill.

But to those who've followed the center's 12-year arrival, it has become a veritable Rorschach test on the role of high culture in today's urban settings.

To some local arts groups, environmentalists, and neighbors, the 24-acre, six-building, arts-and-humanities community atop 110 acres of prime mountaintop wilderness in the middle of Los Angeles represents an elitist, Euro-centric institution, more interested in building monuments to a dominantly Western past than in cultivating and protecting the culture of today.

Getty scholar Pratapaditya Pal, also retired senior curator of Indian and Southeastern Asian art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says the "intimidating image of a medieval castle" looking down on a feudal village will be hard to overcome and that a "downtown site" would have been better.

But to retiring Getty president Harold Williams, the mountaintop project represents the fulfillment of benefactor J. Paul Getty's vision for "the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge."

"It will be a cultural resource for the whole city," muses Mr. Williams, adding that the goal is to be a highly visible reminder of "the role the arts can play in our lives," one that will draw scholars as well as the general public from home and abroad.

The Getty Trust was set up in 1982, using the proceeds of the eccentric oil man's estate, now valued at nearly $4 billion. The various Getty institutions - a museum, a grant program, and five institutes: for conservation, education, information, research, and museum management - have been housed for years in and around Los Angeles, in varying degrees of elegance. While the museum was installed in a re-created Roman villa nestled in the Malibu Hills, the Conservation Institute has languished in a warehouse in the Marina.

Now, says Williams, as all these parts move into their new headquarters, "this center is a coming together of programs of the trust as a whole, creating a unique organization unlike anything, anywhere in the world."

Says architect Richard Meier, the center's location high above a freeway connecting the Los Angeles basin to the city's other population center, the San Fernando Valley, gives it the visibility and accessibility it needs. He adds that "it will have far more impact here than if it were jammed onto a small site in the middle of downtown."

But Mr. Meier says the resistance from neighbors during numerous zoning hearings was eye-opening. "I'd never used stone before, but the local residents screamed, 'We don't want a white Richard Meier building in our mountains!' " So, he says, "I tried something new," an off-white cleft travertine, chock full of fossils and natural variations.

The dramatic texture of the stones, stretching the full perimeter of the site, is visible from the freeway, several hundred feet below.

Now, this champion of the stark white and obviously man-made look says he has a much greater appreciation for natural materials and plans to use them more.

Says Williams, the very process of giving birth to the new center represents the sort of interaction between the arts and the community the Getty Center wants to encourage.

California's state librarian and noted author, Kevin Starr, says discussion about the Getty lacks the proper historical perspective. "Los Angeles is in the process of re-defining itself in the world," he observes, explaining that "cities like Boston and New York are finished. Los Angeles is not."

Mr. Starr says the Getty will become the world center of arts scholarship in the next century. …