Angels in the Architecture

History Today, May 1994 | Go to article overview

Angels in the Architecture


* Despite the almost Biblical challenges of earthquake, wind and fire -- as well as floods -- that its Southern Californian site has been subject to since work began, this spring sees the start of the final construction stage for the new Getty Center, perhaps the world's most ambitious single complex for the study and promotion of art history and antiquities.

On a 110-acre site of the Santa Monica Mountains, overlooking on one side the city of Los Angeles and the other the Pacific Ocean, a complex of six major buildings designed by the internationally-renowned architect, Richard Meier, is taking shape. It brings together in one location both the collections and educational programmes that have come out of the charitable Trust which is the legacy of the multi-millionaire oilman and philanthropist who died in 1976.

The Trust is perhaps best known in the world at for the J. Paul Getty Museum, the original object of his benefactions, whose elaborate endowment has given it so illustrious a reputation and feared for purchasing power in the international art world. A new museum will be one of the buildings in the Center, standing just south of the plaza on the site's eastern ridge.

It will house all of the Getty's post-classical collections and objects, leaving the Greek and Roman antiquities in the aesthetically-suited surroundings of the original museum at Malibu, erected in the mid-1970s to a design based on the Villa dei Papyri in first-century Herculaneum. It was here that members of staff had recently to squirrel priceless statues and paintings to safety when fires swept down the Pacific Coast Highway and posed a threat to the museum.

The new museum in the Santa Monica foothills will have double the conservation space of the Malibu museum, while increased gallery space will make it easier to house ambitious temporary exhibitions as well as showing off the permanent collections to proper advantage.

However, the new Center is far more than just a showcase for the glittering treasures of the museum. Its other buildings and activities reflect the anxiety of the trustees not to be caricatured as open chequebook acquirers distorting the international museum and art market. The objectives for the Trust, outlined in J. Paul Getty's will to promote |the diffusion of artistic and general knowledge', have been very broadly interpreted and the Trust now makes a major contribution to projects of art historical education, conservation and scholarship worldwide as well as in North America. …

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