MYSTERIOSO:

THE GETTY CENTER GARDEN AND BUILDINGS

Robert Hotten 1998

 

Abstract

The Getty Center Garden in Los Angeles, designed by local artist Robert Irwin, is a landscape jewel. The Getty art collection is vast and includes major icons from many eras. The Getty Center contains the garden and houses the collection. Robert Irwin realised in the garden a reflection of the essence of the "Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific Ocean" (known locally as the "Mysterioso" force), the nature of the Santa Monica foothills and the scale of the Cybercity of Los Angeles.

 

Origins

We grew up in the fifties and sixties in Southern California. Levi-clad, driving station wagons with redwood side panels called "woodies", equipped with mattresses for weekend trips and straight, flat, long surfboards nicknamed "logs", we surfed, we listened to music by the Beach Boys and we chased girls who often wore pastel bikinis.

Tom Wolfe tells of the lifestyle in "The Pump House Gang":

Pam Stacy, 16 years old, a cute girl here in La Jolla, California, with a pair of orange bell-bottom hip-huggers on, sits on a step about four steps down the stairway to the beach and she can see a pair of revolting black feet without lifting her head. So she says it out loud, "The black panther."

"Mee-dah," says another kid. This happens to be the cry of a , well, underground society known as the Mac Meda Destruction Company.

"The black panther." "Pan-thuh." "Poon-thuh." "Mee-dah."

...members of the Pump House crowd, are lollygagging around the stairs down to Wind an' Sea Beach, La Jolla, California, about 11 a.m., and they all look at the black feet, which are a woman's pair of black street shoes, out of which stick a pair of old veiny white ankles, which lead up like a senile cone to a fudge of tallowy, edematous flesh, her thighs, squeezing out of her bathing suit. ...Obviously, these people come from Tucson or Albuquerque or one of those hincty adobe towns. All these hincty, crumbling black feet come to La Jolla-by-the-sea from the adobe towns for the weekend. ...Everybody in the Pump House crowd looks over....and everybody takes a look at the panthers. ...But exactly! This beach is verboten for people practically 50 years old.

...Maybe the "mysterioso" stuff is a lot of garbage, but still, it is interesting. The surfers around the Pump House use that word, mysterioso, quite a lot. It refers to the mystery of the Oh Mighty Hulking Pacific Ocean and everything. sometimes a guy will stare at the surf and say, "Mysterioso."

The Garden

Once I took my wife for coffee. The cafe, "Brazil", was an old arcade between buildings with no tenant improvements other than used school bus seats, an espresso machine, industrial objects as decorations and an acetylene torch-cut sheet steel sign. It rated approval as my wife exclaimed, "I want to live here!" Perhaps it was the black and white broken tile floor, or the patina on the 100 year old walls, or the vaulted relief ceiling. The coffee is the best in Auckland.

This month, after a few thousand miles through a springtime California and Nevada greened by the greatest rainfall ever recorded, I stepped off the tram and headed for the Irwin-designed Getty Central Garden. Up the stairs, trotting across a plaza and laying myself over the wall in anticipation, the garden spread out before me and filled my gaze with a wonderland.

 

 

 

 

Looking down the axial stream, a path zigzags across it and under sycamores and colourist flower plantings. The path then crosses a plaza containing 6-meter-tall reinforcing steel bar flower pots planted with bougainvillas. Finally the stream falls into a pond with a floating labyrinth of azaleas surrounded by a bank of paths and patchwork plantings containing an array of matte grey foliage, purple native flowers and fine-textured grasses. Trees shade, and benches allow passive feasting on the scale and diversity of the garden.

 

 

 

 

I sensed with relief, like my carefree wife- I want to live here! The beauty of Irwin's garden matches that of the Getty collection. It is refined, colourful, accentuated, kaliedoscopic and civilised, creating a palimpsest on the mind's eye.

I also felt compassion for the homeless who prefer gardens and parks as residences. They now have a fine new one, in this enigmatic land of haves and have nots.

 

The Buildings

Richard Meier, the architect of the Getty Center, has realised an acropolis-like setting on the chaparral and oak savanna ridge above Los Angeles near Mulholland drive. Culture and civilisation are held above the commonplace of the city here. My son commented on the grand central courtyard- " you would never think you are in L.A."

The femme fatale of the film Chinatown (Mulholland was the antagonist), is expressed in the embracing groups of shapes embedded in the hill. Further:

"...the feminine is doubly incripted: it has affected the manner in which space is conceptualised and theorized, yet it is simultaneously denied an appearance in that space."

The film noir character of the context, one in which incest, murder and land fraud are commonplace, is in the air of Los Angeles.

Yet John Dixon Hunt calls for a pure regionalism based on the ego of the site instead of the ego of the architect. After all, architects will fail in perception and conceptual purity when memorializing themselves.

Recently, Robert Venturi has also, in the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art renovation, missed the point of the site and its context. Venturi commented on being distracted by the local building height limit and failed to understand that the vista of the ocean is, in La Jolla, (also known as the "Emerald jewel of the sea"), more important than building.

Meier and landscape architect Laurie Olin have produced some fine landscape. The Cactus Garden is magnificent. Still many other areas are desolate plazas and represent dismal site planning. Numerous pools with ten-centimeter-deep, one-meter-wide edges are marbled like the plaza surface such that it is hard to see that they are below water. These now are lined with potted plants for traffic control.

 

 

Architecture? Critical regionalism? Shame.

Perhaps they are, after all, out-of-place "panthers".

The Getty Center Garden, the gallery of 19th Century paintings by Van Gogh and colleagues, and the computer labs were the most crowded of areas at the Getty Center. Employees, formerly in their own building on Wilshire Boulevard, have already nicknamed the awkward Getty Center "Alcatraz".

 

Tribute

The Getty Center Garden is a jewelled crown as is the art collection. The formalist modernism delivers the garden and art to us. The buildings, after all, are only that, not architecture. Perhaps something by Frank Gehry would have integrated all the elements.

Lastingly, the garden:

...has an affinity with an image of paradise almost universal.... Its two lateral dimensions are defined by its structural form, but its third dimension, its height, is limitless. It is indeed a "well of heaven".

I nominate Robert Irwin as an honorary member of The Pump House Gang. He is the quintessential California gentleman. Bravo!

 

mail to: laumana@aloha.net

Robert D. Hotten, MLA Architect