The Getty Center sits on a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains, just off the San Diego Freeway. From there, visitors can take in the disparate aspects of Los Angeles's landscape—the Pacific Ocean, the San Gabriel Mountains, and the vast street-grid of the city. Inspired by the relationship between these elements, architect Richard Meier designed the complex to highlight both nature and culture.
When approached from the south, the modernist complex appears to grow from the 110-acre hillside. Two computer-operated trams elevate visitors from a street-level parking facility to the top of the hill. Clad in cleft-cut Italian travertine, the campus is organized around a central arrival plaza, and offers framed panoramic views of the city. Curvilinear design elements and natural gardens soften the grid created by the travertine squares.
Meier positioned the buildings along a natural ridge in the hilltop. Galleries, offices, and the auditorium lead out to courtyards and terraces; all offices receive natural light. Because neighbors requested that the complex be no more than two stories above grade, all of the buildings extend underground and are linked with subterranean corridors that facilitate the moving of artwork and other materials.
The stone—1.2 million square feet of it—is one of the most remarkable elements of the complex. This beige-colored, cleft-cut, textured, fossilized travertine catches the bright Southern California light, reflecting sharply during morning hours, and emitting a honeyed warmth in the afternoon.
Meier chose stone for this project because it is often associated with public architecture and expresses qualities the Getty Center celebrates: permanence, solidity, simplicity, warmth, and craftsmanship.
The 16,000 tons of travertine are from Bagni di Tivoli, Italy, 15 miles east of Rome. Many of the stones revealed fossilized leaves, feathers, and branches when they were split along their natural grain. Meier and his staff worked for a year with the quarries to invent a process using a guillotine to produce the unique finish.
Natural light is one of the Getty Center's most important architectural elements. The many exterior walls of glass allow sunshine to illuminate the interiors. A computer-assisted system of louvers and shades adjusts the light indoors. The paintings galleries on the Museum's upper level are all naturally lit, with special filters to prevent damage to the artworks.