Friday, 6 August 2010

The Getty Centre Garden

The Getty Centre is a modern art museum, opened in Brentwood, Los Angeles, in 1997.

It has a spectacular setting – perched on the Santa Monica Mountains foothills, overlooking Bel Air, Beverley Hills, Westwood, Century City and the San Diego freeway climbing through the mountains.

Although the campus is striking modern architecture, and the museum holds impressive collections of Western art from the middle ages to the present day, it was the garden which enthused me most.

The central garden was designed by American abstract-expressionist and installation artist Robert Irwin in 1992-97, working with the Getty foundation and with architect Richard Meier and landscape architects Spurlock-Poirier. Irwin, who was part of California’s “light & space” (minimalist) movement of the 1960s, described the garden as

"a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art"

aiming to provide the visitor with an experience of sights, sounds and scents, with design components selected to emphasize the interplay of light, colour & reflection.

It certainly struck me as a garden fully intended to work with the Getty Centre’s architecture.

Views of the white travertine buildings act as abstract sculptures backing the varied textures and organic forms of the landscaping & planting.

The garden occupies a natural ravine between the Museum and Research Institute buildings, covering an area of about 3 acres (1.25 hectares) which forms a small part of the overall 110-acre landscaped site. The garden entrance is a tree-lined walkway of angled herringbone stone paving which criss-crosses a stream as it cascades down through the ravine.

At the top end, the stream is contained within granite tile sides, creating a V-shaped wide rill, with large, irregular-shaped granite boulders in the stream bed where the water swirls over and around them. As the stream descends, and the path winds back & forth over herringbone timber bridges, its texture changes to granite sets and then to granite “tile on edge” with wide stone steps forming the banks between bridges. The stream eventually crosses a large terrace before falling as a short stair-cascade into a circular reflecting pool which holds a labyrinthine round-topped Azalea hedge growing about 75cm above the water surface.

Surrounding this pool are terraces of mixed planting, flanked by low Corten steel retaining walls and compacted gravel paths which ramp back & forth in long arcs between levels, following the style of the stream path and the lines of the pool and water parterre.

The central terrace, between the stream path and the pool, features Bougainvillea-clothed rusted steel “mushrooms” that create shady tree-like shapes with seating beneath their cover. Corten steel is again used to form organic, curvy retaining walls between the planted beds and the gently mounding grass lawns that stretch beyond to the campus buildings. Carved into the terrace is designer Irwin’s motto “always changing, never twice the same” – a key feature of the planting design which includes over 500 species (no, I didn't count them all!) to ensure variety & succession.

Clearly, there was no shortage of funding in the development of this garden (which took almost 2 years to construct in 1997-97), nor for its subsequent upkeep, with quality materials & craftsmanship evident in both the hard and soft landscaping. I did find it inspirational and could see how some of its features could be emulated on a smaller scale – with the water maze reminding me of my own design ”AQUA ZY Garden” from my college days!

Linked to the central garden is a small sculpture park – but I was disappointed with this.

Not so much in the artworks themselves, but with their setting – they seemed, to me, to occupy a piece of “left over” ground, with no thought to the background or direction of (natural) lighting.

Perhaps some additional softscape design could improve this!

The Getty Centre is at 1200 Getty Centre Drive, Los Angeles, and is free admission (though it does cost a few dollars to park) all year, except for Mondays & holidays. For more information visit and

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