Getty takes high art to Hollywood

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The Independent Online
The new Getty Centre in Los Angeles opens this week. It is a vast and expensive monument to culture in a city better known for flashy impermanence. Tim Cornwell says some people prefer tinseltown to Goya.

The Getty museum that most visitors to Los Angeles know is a reproduction Roman villa perched above the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. It is closed for a major overhaul. Instead, all eyes are on the new Getty Centre, which opens its doors to the public this week. Occupying a high hill, bearing over the 405 freeway in West Los Angeles, its off-white ramparts have been compared by those below to a city state or crusader castle guarding a pass through the Santa Monica mountains.

The architectural merits of the new Getty will be put through the wringer by the international press this week, when a squad of 600 reporters is guided through a three-day preview. The interlocking museum, research, library and administration buildings cover the 110-acre hilltop in a gargantuan arts complex. It was designed and built over 14 years by the New York architect Richard Meier, at a cost of about $1bn (pounds 625m).

It is a fitting home for the Getty Trust, established with a sizable chunk of the Getty fortune, and now worth $4.3bn. Meier, often inspired by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, is winning gushing praise for the glass rotunda, and the use of natural light in the galleries through computerised louvres that regulate the California sunshine. The building is faced by 250,000 blocks of travertine marble, mounted over concrete.

The collection, focused on 19th-century European art, includes crowd- pleasers like Van Gogh's Irises, bought for a reported $35m, Cezannes and Goyas, and Christ's Entry into Brussels in 1889, by Ensor.

The Getty, it is said, marks the coming of a late modern monumentalism in a city better known as a place of youth and constant change, where things are torn down as quickly as they are built up. For Los Angeles, a city haunted by its own provincialism and superficiality, it lays a claim to international stature. For those who love the place for the reasons others hate it - that it is faddy, flimsy, and a cultural grab bag - this passing seems a little sad.

It is safe to say that feelings about the Getty, so far, are decidedly mixed - swinging between "Getty bashing, and Getty deification", observed one local architect. Some Angelenos wonder what such a lofty enterprise, devoted mostly to the art of dead white European males, means to a polyglot city which is increasingly Asian and Hispanic. The Getty has responded with a city-wide advertising for "Your Getty" - "imagine, discover, explore, enjoy". The museum has revived a perennial debate about the place of high culture in the home of Baywatch.

"The cliche of Los Angeles is a city of decay, a city where, as Raymond Chandler put it, the front door is the only part of a house you can't kick through with a boot," wrote Nicholas Ouroussoff, architectural critic of the Los Angeles Times.

"The Getty is a finely honed alternative. It seeks to civilise the city's sprawl, to hoist a banner to the Old World values of high art. In doing so, it marks a shift toward making Los Angeles a more traditional city."

Carolyn See, whose books are set in and about Los Angeles, suggests the Getty will give "a little dignity" to a young city, born in the 1880s on the back of a one-dollar rail fare from the east. Other monuments are soon to follow. The long-delayed Disney Hall, with a dauntingly lavish design by Frank Gehry, creator of the Guggenheim Bilbao, has finally got the funding it needs. The Los Angeles Catholic church has commissioned a new cathedral from the Spanish architect Jose Rafael Moneo.

Meier's design suffered from the demands of local residents, who insisted on height restrictions, and made him exchange his trade mark white construction for a light tan. But it is his mixing of disjoined architectural themes that has brought some of the toughest criticism, particularly from New York, which has historically looked down on California's artistic pretensions.

The Getty has been compared to a corporate headquarters, a medical centre, and a "stack of Deco refrigerator doors", suggesting for many that it "simply does not work" as a whole. "It is hard for people in the North- east, particularly in New York, to accept that LA can do anything that's sophisticated in culture and the arts," said Barry Munitz, the California State University chancellor who will take over as president of the Getty Trust in January. "It's tinseltown, the movie business, a bunch of Philistines whose brains have been fried by the sun."