For once, the hottest tickets in L.A. aren’t for a movie, a concert, or a theme-park ride. This summer, they’re for a museum.
The Getty Villa near Malibu reopened early in 2006 after nearly a decade under renovation wraps. In its new incarnation, it’s devoted to Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. The villa itself, a fairly faithful rendition of a first-century Roman country house, now has revamped surroundings, with a new entryway, research facilities, a café, and a sweeping outdoor classical theater. Its reorganized galleries give a fuller picture of the astounding collections of ancient treasures, from towering statues to delicate glass amulets. (Click here for details on visiting the Getty.)
An Escapist Fantasy
Since its reopening, curious visitors have been streaming up the Pacific Coast Highway to explore the villa, wander through its gardens, and put together their two cents on the redesign. One thing that hasn’t changed is the museum’s sense of escapism. Set in a coastal canyon, facing the Pacific, and surrounded by trees, the Getty Villa has always felt like its own little world, a bauble held apart from the rest of L.A.
Fantasy is part of the museum’s DNA. The villa was built in the 1970s by the oil tycoon and art collector J. Paul Getty, who was crazy about Greco-Roman history. The faux-Roman building, with its classically inspired gardens, was a deeply personal project — the polar opposite of a design by committee. In its live-the-dream ambition, it’s a consummate L.A. experience. The new expansion, designed by Machado & Silvetti Associates, takes a more serious attitude.
Making an Entrance
One of the major changes is the main entryway, which the architects wanted to have “the drama of an archaeological dig.” From the parking area, you walk up a path and stairway along one side of the complex, past walls of teak, cement with a subtle, wood-like grain, and, in a nod to the Getty Center, travertine. You eventually emerge at the top of an open-air, amphitheater-like classical theater, where cascading steps lead your eye down to the villa’s columned entrance (see right). From this high vantage point, you can see the ocean and get glimpses of the gardens. The indirect approach may stoke your anticipation for the museum galleries, but it could also tempt you into lingering outdoors. Even that archaeological drama may have to wait if the weather’s nice?
The theater itself will host live performances, primarily classic dramas in both traditional and contemporary adaptations. These start in September 2006 with a run of Euripides’ Hippolytus.
Exploring the Galleries
In the villa’s galleries, the antiquities have now been installed in thematic groups. Each room brings together works from different cultures and time periods, linked by a common subject or purpose (see right). For instance, there are rooms dedicated to depictions of the Trojan War, athletes and competition, gods and goddesses, religious offerings, and terracotta vessels, each with a fascinating mix of items on display. With such groupings, you can easily compare the rigid stance of an Etruscan statue with the more natural pose of a Grecian figure, or follow the increasing sophistication in metalwork or vessel decoration.
One knockout statue gets a room of its own: the Lansdowne Herakles, a larger-than-life Roman marble figure dating from about 125 A.D (see below). It’s said that this statue inspired J. Paul Getty to build the villa in the first place. With his club on one shoulder and the Nemean lion’s skin in his opposite hand, Herakles could be ready to relax — or swing back into action.
If ancient history isn’t fresh in your mind, it’s helpful to make an early stop in the TimeScape room. Here you can get a quick rundown on historic events and cultural developments around the ancient Mediterranean through interactive displays and maps. (Watch those Romans race through Europe.) The Family Forum aims to engage children with cool hands-on activities, often based on the collection’s vases. For example, there’s a shadow-play area based on decorative vase scenes.
The art’s display treatment is impressively careful. Temperature and humidity controls are tailored for specific materials, and seismic isolators are hidden in display cases to protect vulnerable works in case of an earthquake. The custom-designed cases use a perfectly clear, nonreflective glass that virtually disappears. Explanatory labels are coded with images, so it’s easy to match text with art (no searching for numbered tags). It’s the care and expense lavished on these less-noticeable details — as much as the grander changes — that remind you of the Getty’s status as one of the world’s richest cultural institutions. These improvements could spoil you for visits to other museums.
The Great Outdoors
As you roam the villa’s rooms, you’ll inevitably be drawn out into the gardens, all accurate Roman-style recreations. Getty was just as meticulous with the gardens as with the villa’s architecture, insisting on plants and designs that would be true to the original source.
One garden forms the heart of the villa: the Inner Peristyle, a serene formal garden surrounded by colonnades. You can cross between wings of the house by threading through this green space, which is divided by a long, narrow reflecting pool flanked by graceful bronze statues.
The Outer Peristyle is the glamazon of the garden pack: it’s the largest and most formal, populated with dramatic bronze sculptures. A broad rectangular pool stretches out from the villa, with a reclining statue at either end. (During a staff party given for the villa’s temporary closing in 1997, more than a few people ended up in this pool. Tempting, isn’t it?) Arcades and walkways run alongside, with plantings of roses, Grecian laurels, and ivy topiaries. From the far end, you’ll have a striking perspective back towards the villa.
The Herb Garden is a far mellower space (see below). The equivalent of a kitchen garden, it’s filled with plants that would have been used for cooking, medicinal, and religious purposes in a Roman household. This may be the best-smelling garden, with its beds of herbs including thyme, oregano, spearmint, sage, basil, and camomile. Grapevines climb up an arbor, and fruit trees grow at the far end.
Architectural critics have given mixed reviews to the renovated complex. The Los Angeles Times architecture correspondent praised the design and claimed it makes “timely assertions about authenticity, camp and the definition of history in Southern California.” (The L.A. Times Web site has the fullest journalistic coverage of the Getty, including photos and nifty renderings.) The New York Times critic acknowledged the “high architectural I.Q.” but griped that “the fun is gone.” It’s true that the villa’s goofy, devil-may-care feeling has been diluted by its sophisticated adaptation. But there’s still plenty of fun — and beauty, pleasure, and sheer admiration — to be had.
Special thanks to Robbie Kreinces, Tracy Gilbert, and Jessica Robinson of the J. Paul Getty Trust for their assistance.
Getty Villa Logistics
All photos (c) 2005 Richard Ross with the courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Trust
Photo Captions: (1)The new Entry Pavilion at the Getty Villa; (2) View of the Victorious Youth gallery; (3) View of the J. Paul Getty Museum and new outdoor classic theater at the Getty Villa; (4) Men in Antiquity gallery; (5) Temple of Herakles gallery; (6) The outer Peristyle; (7) View of the Herb Garden and southwest facade.