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October 30, 2002



We got an interesting and thoughtful comment the other day, which I thought deserved a bit more prominence than our format generally offers. It was from Mike Kelly in response to my posting "Getty vs. Acropolis."

I've not been to the Getty, so I can speak only of the photographs I've seen, including those on your web page. Based on those, however, I'd score the comparison between it and the Acropolis slightly differently. On the second point, for instance, where you see lumpishness and illogic, I see interesting variation, which is not nearly so obviously inferior as you suggest to the Parthenon's "Masses [that are] cleanly and clearly articulated".

But the main point I wish to make is that the comparison, though not irrelevant, is absurdly unfair. The Acropolis is nearly universally recognised as one of the great works, if not the greatest work, of collective architecture in the history of Europe, if not the world. You seem to be trying to pass off the comparison as a condemnation of the Getty. That's like trying to show that Long Day's Journey into Night is lousy because it fails in a comparison, on some arbitrarily chosen points, with, say, King Lear.

Also, you point out that the Parthenon took less time to build than the Getty, but the relevant comparison would be between the entire Acropolis complex--which had been the object of comparison up until this point--and the Getty, would it not?

First, I want to make it absolutely clear that I appreciate Mike (and the rest of our readership) taking the time to read my stuff and comment on it at all, whether or not you agree with my point of view.

As for the actual design issues Mike raises, I look very, very often at the exact view shown below of the Getty as I wind my way from Los Angeles' West Side to the Valley.

Not my favorite view

Looking at this view (at length, usually in slow traffic) I find that the Getty's design suffers from a fundamental problem of scale. The large masses are very large, and yet really don't "articulate" well to each other: they don't create either a rhythmic or a structural pattern. The modernist "detailing" glued on the outside of the major masses does link the large masses and (modestly) articulate them, but is too small and insufficiently muscular to work visually from a distance. Ergo, the design can only hope to work fairly close up, and this building can be seen from at least 10 miles down the 405 freeway! I'm not the only person who thinks there's something wrong here, either; a friend mentioned that an architect of his acquaintance (who likes the complex as a whole) considers the "freeway" views of the Getty to be closely akin to what you see when a fat repairman with baggy pants bends over to pick up a tool (his words, not mine)--in short, the building was designed to be seen from the courtyard, not the road. I would argue, however, that much modern architecture, and not only the Getty, falls into the problem of being designed to be seen fairly close up (as a collection of brilliant "details") and not from a distance.

As for daring to compare the Getty with the Acropolis, it may be unfair for reasons having nothing to do with architecture in the narrow sense (see my subsequent posting "Getty vs. Acropolis redux"). But I also think it's important to remember that the gods of architecture didn't preordain that the Acropolis be built to the highest possible standard, and that everything else would forever fall short (at least...I don't think so, but it might have helped Meier to make an offering or two.) Iktinos, Kallikrates and Mnesikles put their togas on one leg at a time, etc., etc. Given the enormous financial and technical resources (much greater than those available to the Athenians, by any measure) at the beck and call of the architect, Richard Meier, as well as the dramatic site, I don't think it's so unfair to raise this comparison. And even if it is a matter of comparing "King Lear" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night," if such a comparison reveals something about either play, I see nothing wrong with it. And yeah, it may have taken longer to build and decorate the whole Acropolis complex than the Getty, but I don't think that is much of a bragging point for the Getty, again considering the disparity of construction technology and resources between the two projects. (How'd you like to haul marble up the Acropolis by hand or by pack horse!) The bottom line is the Getty people took a hellacious long time and an enormous amount of money to deliver a sort of inoffensive, reasonably functional complex, when they had a never-to-be-equalled-in-our-lifetime opportunity to do something truly remarkable.

I mean, in the end, did the Getty Trust in choosing the Meier design even manage to surpass their original Getty Roman villa complex (except in size and cost)? Which would you describe as the more daring, artistically? My money is on the old pirate, J. Paul himself, and not on his Trustees and their 1985 business as usual design choices.

The Old Pirate's Roman Villa in Malibu

Anyway, the really interesting point in all this is, as you have remarked, that while taste always differs, we have a truly classy crew reading our blog.



posted by Friedrich at October 30, 2002


I appreciate the thoughtful response to my comments on your earlier "Getty vs. Acropolis" piece. From the photos I've seen of the Getty, I would say that though certain individual buildings of the complex, seen fairly close up, seem rather fine, the complex as a whole seen from some distance is, as you say, a disappointment. I would agree that it is on this point--the view from afar--that the comparison between the Acropolis and the Getty is most telling.

I take exception, though, to generalizing this point to modern works in general. Much modern architecture holds up well from a distance. Mies's works--the New National Gallery, for instance, or the Seagram Building--work well from a distance. Also worth noting in this context is that Mies was a master of making a complex of buildings work well, whether a complex of his own, as in the Federal Center in Chicago, or a complex only partly of his own creation, as in how he placed his IBM Building in Chicago among the Marina City towers and the Sun-Times Building. Of course, one could say that Mies had, in many ways, a classical aesthetic. Yet some very unclassical modernist architects, such as Le Corbusier or Wright (if one could get a view of the Guggenheim from a distance, I think it would show quite well), have created works that are rewarding up close or from afar.

Whatever our disagreements on this point (and many others I've not commented on), I appreciate the thoughtful analysis. You two have a great blog.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on October 31, 2002 12:04 AM

I vote for the quasi-Roman Getty villa myself, which I've enjoyed every time I've visited.

It seems to me that, however fond I am of a handful of modernist and postmodernist buildings, that one of the great disserves the modernist academic mafia has done to architecture is to give 'way too many people the impression that something like the new Getty complex represents "architecture," and something like the quasi-Roman villa old Getty represents "not-architecture." What's pleasant, what's traditional, what's comfy and serviceable tends all too often to be seen as not worth thinking about. Yet what could be a more worthwhile architectural achievement than to create something comprehensible, attractive and pleasant, and that serves its function (let alone its inhabitants, visitors and neighbors) well?

It was apparently J.P Getty's own inspiration to have the original museum take the form of a recreation of an actual villa from outside Herculaneum -- that's one kind of architectural idea. (And, in this case, a good one.) It's now being renovated by a Boston firm, Machado & Silvetti, who are apparently working within the traditional language. What do you want to bet they don't get nearly the press that Richard Meier got? Yet if their work is good, shouldn't it be celebrated, and recognized as a genuine architectural achievement?

But I rant. Thanks to both of you for the good artchat.


Posted by: michael on October 31, 2002 11:20 AM

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