More Californian, hazy blue skies... Another amazing place I visited the previous week was the Getty Center, an enormous art center situated high up on a hilltop overlooking Beverly Hills and the immense metropolitan area of Los Angeles. The effect of seeing the center from below is a reversed version of my picture above: a streamlined, cream-colored fortress looming high above the busy everyday life of the congested, cosmopolitan city.
The Getty Center was designed in the '90s by architect Richard Meier and built of steel, glass and countless tons of travertine, shipped from Bagni di Tivoli in Italy. Visitors arrive to the center with a sleek, modern tram, which Meier designed to give them a feeling of 'being elevated out of their day-to-day experience'; this I completely agree with. In back of my head, a small voice whispered 'only in America...' as I entered this huge bastion of high culture and art, that was built with money earned from oil and with a budget that probably exceeded the annual GNP of any of the Scandinavian countries.
The Getty Center is a monumental place with superb collections of Western art, ranging from old manuscripts, sculptures, paintings and decorative arts to modern art, including photography. Many of the sculptures - Miros, Moores, Magrittes, Maillols... - are displayed outdoors, forming incredible focal points against the magnificent scenery. I was briefly reminded of the lovely Foundation Maeght on a hilltop in Saint Paul de Vence in southern France, as so many of the works are made by same artists, but a comparison is impossible. The Maeght Foundation was, despite the many visitors, a personal experience on a intimate scale, while the size and extent of the Getty Center and its collections make visiting it everything but intimate; still, it's a truly magnificent place in its own way.
The Central Garden is the largest garden area, designed by artist Robert Irwin. He once called it 'a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art', and it felt like the hybrid he wanted it to be. Meandering down from the upper level, a zigzag path followed a boulder-filled stream surrounded by London plane trees, reminiscent of a natural ravine. Here, Irwin concentrated on the experience of sound, provided by water running down the stream, and texture, provided by plants that he organized 'according to the complexity of their leaves'. Unfortunately, the stream remained dry during my visit, but I found the contrast between the sleek path and the rough boulders strong and attractive. The plantings were well-composed and contemporary, the plants had attractive forms and colors, even if I didn't quite catch anything really special in the leaf combinations.
The zigzagging path and the stream run down to a circular maze of Kurume azaleas planted in rusty steel containers in the water. It was coming to full bloom; a eye-catching blaze of colour, that felt almost aggressive amongst the otherwise restricted color scheme. So called 'specialty gardens' encircled the central pool with azaleas; looking at them, I caught myself thinking 'Oh no, not a kitchen garden here', as 'cottagey' as they were in their expression (the second picture above, on the half way level from the pool up). Irwin meant them to provide scale and intimacy, but somehow I just thought that they felt out of place with their small scale, completely dwarfed by their surroundings. Instead, I found the sculptural, rusted iron bar 'mushrooms' (above), with bougainvilleas climbing up them, in perfect scale with their environment, providing rest in well-needed shade in the white, Californian sun.
On the south side of the Center, several staircases with viewing platforms extended out from the building. A roof terrace planted with cacti made a great focal point in front of the boundless view; I thought that they mirrored the rounded forms of the leafy suburbs, suddenly changing into the spiky, high specimens, like the skyscrapers in the distant horizon. Gliding down to the garage in the silent tram, I was uncertain if I could ever get used to this kind of grandeur; like the great chateaus and museums of Europe, the Getty Center seemed like a place best enjoyed in small portions, carefully dealt out over convenient periods of time.