Concert of the Wills: Making the Getty Center (1997)

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The Getty Center under construction. Description: A complex boxy unclad array of rectilineal steel, a view over Los Angeles can be seen in the background. Credit.

This is a film that dispels the “burst of inspiration” notion and all the bull about the artistic process. — Maysles

As part of my ongoing exploration of how major cultural facilities actually get built, this 1997 documentary was recommended to me by David Reeves. Tracking down a copy to watch was another matter.

I should not have been surprised that an independently produced niche documentary, entirely funded by the Getty Trust about their own project, made 22 years ago, may not just be at the end of a Netflix search.

It is not available to stream anywhere I could locate. Less legal channels were not forthcoming. There were eight copies on Amazon second-hand, starting from $80. Trove uncovered six copies in Australia: three DVDs at the Australian Museum, Uni SA, and Uni WA. Three VHS copies at UTS, SLQ and Melbourne University.

Thanks Tilly Boleyn for using her Melbourne University, via Science Gallery, privileges to get me a copy. Of course, it is a NTSC VHS, and there appears to be one NTSC VHS deck left at Melbourne University, in the lonely back corner of the fifth level of the Eastern Resource Centre. It features two tethered sets of headphones, neither quite long enough to avoid having your eyes rather too close to the early generation LCD screen which is proudly stretching the film into the wrong aspect ratio.

Suffice to say, it was not exactly cinematic viewing conditions.

Despite all this: it is rather good, if not a little dry in parts — even for a museum nerd. In a pattern that pre-dates The Museum which follows the Daniel Libeskind expansion of the ROM documentary some 12 years later, the conflict is framed around the difference in vision between the Museum Director and the Architect.

Although in this case, the Museum Director is just one part of a much larger beast that is the Getty; and this film does a better job than The Museum at showing the complex set of relationships at work across the President of the Trustees, the various other Trustee members, the Getty Management team and the (growing number) of designers involved in the process.

And it should: Albert Maysles and team was given fairly unlimited access over the extraordinarily long project timeline— picking up shortly after Richard Meier is appointed as architect.

We follow this extraordinary project from local government approvals, to Italy to source Travertine, to the incredible terra-forming task that was building a million square foot museum on the top of a hill in Los Angeles. It’s considered the most ex­pensive American cultural project since the construction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the 1870s. Also I completely geek-out because the Centre has a hovertrain (a type of train that replaces wheels with hovercraft lift pads — which also means they are omni-directional) which takes you up the hill to the centre from the carpark/arrivals area: but which is more tastefully referred to as the Getty Center Tram.

From an interview about the making of the documentary:

Fourteen years ago, as the project was being conceived, Getty executives decided to include in their plans the documentation on film of the entire process: conception, design and building. “We wanted to docu­ment the process for historians. Hard as it is to believe now, in 1982 we didn’t know when it would start, what it would become, when it would finish or what the process would be,” said Gloria Gerace, a Project Manager of the Building Program. “At first we thought we would just shoot archival footage and maybe later there would be a film. We hired the Maysles because we saw in the Christo films (Christa’s Valley Curtain, 1974; Running Fence, 1978; Islands, 1986; Christo in Paris, 1990) that they had captured a process, and we liked the idea of a film about how something was made. They were quality filmmakers, they were willing to come on board to a project that had no parameters… basically, they were willing to come on an adventure.”

Susan Froemke: In June of ’85, we traveled with Getty Executives on a research trip to Italy — that was our first shoot. Our final shoot will be on November 20, 1997.

Bob Eisenhardt: After 12 years of filming, the very last shot will go in the day before the film goes to the Getty.

After a moment of astonished silence, all three broke into laughter.

Albert Maysles: I mean, What’s the rush?

The rough story of the Centre is that Getty dies in 1976 — leaving a will that sets up a Trust that is to go forth and create a new type of institution. By 1981, the Trustees have formed a plan that will create a new centre that combines the academic research functions, a library and museum with a new kind of public venue. By 1983, the purchase of a 110-acre site in the Santa Monica Mountains (surrounded by another 600 acres of hillside) was made. Meier is appointed by 1984, construction began 1987 — it finally opens to the public in 1997.

“We want a Richard Meier building, but we don’t want it to be white”

One of the fascinating tensions in the film is the fact that the Getty hired Meier — who is renowned for having a very specific style (white, steel, glass, stacked forms with curved elements) — for this job. The rather restrictive conditions set by the City for the site (there were some 100+ conditions set) included that the building couldn’t be white; and the majority of it should be stone. Apparently so it would ‘blend in’ with the hillside.

The resulting architectural journey is sometimes uncomfortable viewing: we see Meier and team clearly struggling with a completely alien palette. An early design presentation to the Getty Trustees fails dismally. A patchwork array of mosaic grids in many different types and colours of stone provokes one of the Trustees to say “I know it’s heretical to say, but I don’t understand why we just can’t do it in white. That’s why we hired you.”

No-one in the room responds, Meier doesn’t either — he just continues to wear a neutral frozen face that repeatedly appears in the film when he doesn’t know what to do with the outbursts from the seemingly endless array of people who have *things to say*.

The final stonework is from a single type; applied in a complex grid structure. The 16,000 tons of travertine is, of course, sourced from Bagni di Tivoli, Italy, 15 miles east of Rome, and sliced into panels with a custom rig for the job. Fair enough — there are 1.2 million square feet of travertine stone coating the walls of the Centre.

Later we see an attempt to use mirrored stainless steel as a cladding, it doesn’t make it. In the end, white grids do appear…in the form of pre-manufactured steel painted panels.

Also incredible are the extended scenes in the architectural offices devoid of computers or screens — interestingly, as the project extends on for so long eventually we witness the firm transition to CAD in later parts of the film.

And to ‘fast track’ this 12 year project — they are still designing the spaces after the concrete foundations had been poured.

Who’s in Charge?

Ada Louise Huxtable makes a great observation early in the film (transcription errors mine) that pretty much sums up the challenge of making great cultural spaces:

“If you leave it to the architect, it’s a risky thing. Although you’ll end up with a beautiful building — the art will suffer. But, if you leave it with the Museum Director, it’s worse: you don’t even have a beautiful building to walk through. You’ll have a dull, characterless building, and the art still suffers.”

In the general theme of “we are not our audience” having Museum folk define the needs for their buildings can lead to a particular type of functional myopia.

It reflects her opinions across decades:

With a few notable exceptions, the museums of the 1960’s leaned heavily toward windowless warehousing, or more correctly, their directors did. Frustrated by older, monumental structures with enormous architectural presence requiring constant installation battles, curators demanded total control of the presentation of their collections. They asked for, and got, anonymous, all-purpose spaces in blind, bland boxes. The vagaries of daylight were eliminated for sophisticated artificial lighting systems. In essence, nothing was supposed to interfere with the art itself — least of all the architect, who was often a troublesome fellow.

The results, which should have been ideal, were curiously disappointing. The buildings were not just neutral, they were dispiritingly characterless. The scientifically controlled lighting lacked life. The museum was reduced to containerized art. Most surprising of all, the works of art seemed diminished, rather than liberated, by their ordinary setting. Since then, the return to daylit galleries and specially designed spaces has been gradual, but steady, and the return of architecture as the supplier of context and measure for the other arts is quite overwhelmingly evident. — Read the Rest

Side Note: I’d not read a lot of Huxtable: I’m planning to change that. She was pretty incredible. Hyperallegic has a great starting list.

Huxtable played a particular role in the process. She was part of the Selection Committee setup initially to shortlist and choose architects for the project, but went on to have an oversight role throughout the project. The Committee was pretty amazingly credentialed:

Bill Lacy (Chair) Executive Director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize, President of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art; Reyner P. Banham, Chair, Department of Art History, University of California, Santa Cruz; Richard Bender, Chair, College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley; Kenneth Dayton, Chair, Executive Committee, Dayton-Hudson Corporation, and former member, National Council on the Arts; Anne d’Harnoncourt, Director, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Ada Louise Huxtable, MacArthur Fellow, and former Editorial Board member and architecture critic, New York Times; Craig Hugh Smyth, Director, I Tatti, Florence, and former Director, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University; Harold Williams (Chair of the Getty Trust) and Nancy Englander (Director, Program Planning and Analysis) served as ex-officio members; the Directors of the Getty Museum, John Walsh and Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, Kurt W. Forster, participated as nonvoting observers.

Lacy noted:

It is a credit to Richard Meier’s intelligence that he was somewhat cautious about, and more than a little skeptical of, the value of such an oversight group, particularly one with credentials accompanied, more often than not, by strong biases. And it is a credit to his generosity of spirit that at our final meeting, he acknowledged the value of his dialogue with the committee during the development of his design

In “The Getty Centre Design Process”, Stephen Rountree notes:

Aspects of the collaborative process were probably daunting to Richard Meier. By 1986 the Trust’s objectives had grown to encompass six distinct programs as well as the central administrative operations. At least a dozen senior staff members had important input to the design process. In addition there were over forty key users who were, at some point, actively involved in the detailed planning effort and design review. While my staff and I represented the Trust and orchestrated 16 planning and design review activity, the nature of the Trust’s commitment to a collaborative effort meant that Meier and his associates were asked to listen and respond to an unusually large number of relatively independent, determined clients. While this suffused the entire enterprise with creativity and a variety of perspectives, it also led to a tendency to compartmentalize the planning and design, to deal with each component on its own terms, apart from the rest. This was probably inevitable. However, Meier did not let the design of the pieces become more compelling than that of the whole.

(emphasis above is mine)

Museological Needs / Design Needs

John Walsh, director of the Getty Museum spends a lot of time within the film clearly struggling with the types of space he ‘needs’ to display the work. Walsh notes that they are “not looking for singular rooms, or defined spaces…more interconnected spaces bathed in natural light”. He writes in the Design Brief:

If these pavilions were separated by walks, gardens, information centers, and other public spaces, we could achieve several other objectives as well: variety of scale and visual experience; distinctive ambiences for the different collections; dispersion of visitors, so that overcrowding in certain areas was avoided; lucidity of plan, so that visitors knew where they were; and encouragement of visitors to immerse themselves in what they were seeing at the moment and its specific context, rather than to feel obligated to move constantly onward in a prescribed sequence. Such a physical layout could offer many options for eventual future expansion in different areas of the Museum.

Meier obliges with a series of smaller ‘manageable’ galleries that he describes that in-between you can rest your eyes; listen to the fountain or get coffee.

Walsh is “searching for decor’ within a modernist building, “decor to support the collection”. This decor should align to Walsh’s expectations of how the Getty collection of art and furniture should be displayed. In the early 1980s: this was the ‘right’ way:

Walsh notes that he is seeking the right environment for the paintings and furniture — a “beautiful and logical setting that enhances them”.

“You can’t hang them on white or light walls, you need texture of surfaces to support them, and then you need good light, natural light, daylight” and you can’t do that with “hard, uniform surfaces” — it’s “just not possible”.

Another choice quote:

“I am a very discerning consumer of architecture, and a pretty sharp critic of what works and what doesn’t in museums”.

We cut almost immediately to another interview with Meier, who expounds on why having neutral, light walls allows him to “see” the delicate tones of the artworks. Later on one of the helpful staff suggests “can you even get white damask?”

The Getty Chair notes “most people aren’t art aficionados”, and that the Getty’s desire was to “create an ambience in which they could be more receptive to what they would see and experience…it’s a seduction process”.

This same language is reflected in the design brief document (see page 140)

They should be put in a receptive frame of mind by the atmosphere of a beautiful, comfortable building. In the galleries they ought to be seduced by the beauty of individual works of art, a seduction that will be more complete if the works of art are not only especially fine but are seen in beautiful light and harmonious settings.

Somewhat confusingly a few paragraphs later:

We hope that the building can give modem form to the well-proven virtues, aesthetic and functional, of the great museums of the past. We require settings for the works of art that bear some relation to their original context, with lighting, scale, decor, and materials chosen to make works of art look at home — albeit in a home of the 1990s. Visual competition needs to be kept to a minimum.

It improves a bit:

Be sure visitors learn all they can. A pleasurable encounter with a work of art can stimulate curiosity. Curiosity, fed with useful information, can produce the intellectual excitement and enrichment that comes with a closer familiarity with a work of art and its context. In the new Museum we have a remarkable chance to deepen the visitor’s experience by a variety of means, including a lucid organization of the collections, helpful labelling, and educational adjuncts in the vicinity of the collections that provide information and interpretation. From the moment visitors enter the Getty property, in fact, their experience should be viewed as potentially educational.

Suffice to say between the traditionalism, paternal overtones and egos: it’s hardly going to be straightforward.

We need to “shake things up a bit”

The Trustees and management reach a series of points where the strong-willed Meier isn’t delivering what they are seeking— so they turn to a series of other designers to intervene and override.

Stephen Roundtree (Getty Vice President) notes at one point “He [Meier] can not accept the client as an equal partner” — conversely he acknowledges that “Getty is a multi-headed client”.

San Diego artist Robert Irwin is commissioned to design the “central garden” — replacing a series of architectural platforms and features that Meier had cascading down the hillside.

These sequences are some of the most pointed in the film: we see Meier get “very angry” — which is certainly a very internalised kind of anger. Irwin at one point literally calls “bullshit”.

With the benefit of hindsight — the garden is a welcome softer space from the hard-edged rigour of the rest of the architecture — but somehow all the frou-frou formal plantings and sculptural rebar ‘trees’ do seem oddly out of place to me.

With the interiors of the museum still a massive sticking point (there is a rather dull extended sequence where we see Walsh and Meier argue about picture rails, and we see them crawling inside huge scale models) French architect Thierry Despont is brought in to help convince Meier to add colour and softness to the museum interiors. As the Getty executives fear that “Richard seems almost to have a hostility toward comfort.”

This results in stronger wall colours and indeed we get to the see the installation of some damask walls. Despont at one point cajoles Meires “just give them this one wall.”

Finally Open

In a rather amazing sequence towards the end of the film, Walsh is wandering through the newly opened galleries — and finally acknowledges that Meier “knew what he was doing” all along “we couldn’t see it, but he could”.

Walsh was so focussed on the details of picture rails and the like, that he struggled to see the bigger picture of what the architecture was doing.

After the Getty, Meier adopts stone as part of his palette. Most famously for the Museo dell’Ara Pacis in Rome.

The Getty Centre is definitely a unique complex — so much so that it’s probably less helpful as a guide to anyone involved in making cultural infrastructure. The scale, budget and ambition are so extreme. That said: the underlying tension between making great spaces; and making it work as a venue for art, collections, storytelling and learning applies to projects of any scale. The issues of monumentality versus human comforts are still played out in so many projects.

What began as an opened ended process, gathering over 150 hours of archival footage, to be boiled down to just 100 minutes: it somehow seems like the perfect metaphor for the Getty Project as a whole.

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Cultural infrastructure, design and technology. Traces of typography. Previously @maasmuseum @create_nsw and @acmi currently @Creative_Vic pronouns: he/him

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