Traversing the travertine

My first few weeks have flown by and the June Gloom has well and truly lifted from LA. Every task and event is an opportunity to explore the site more and the great weather adds an impressive backdrop. While encountering the different departments and places onsite (and constantly getting lost), I’ve tried to pick up as much information about the Getty’s creation and the events surrounding its origin.

Almost everyone knows of the museum’s position as the legacy of the late J Paul Getty. Getty built the Getty Villa on his ranch property, modelling it on the Roman Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. The Villa is in Malibu and I will visiting several times to meet the staff there and engage with some of their programs. Danielle has worked to arrange this since learning of my background in classics and I am thrilled that I will get a chance to visit because of this.

The Getty Center itself was designed by the architect Richard Meier, commissioned by the board of trustees in 1984, and construction began in 1987. Meier’s vision was for the building itself to stand alone as a beautiful artistic creation. He definitely achieved this; everywhere you look, visitors are having their pictures taken in and around the buildings, trying to get the perfectly artsy shot. The majority of the site is built of travertine, a marble that was shipped all the way over from an Italian quarry near Tivoli. Travertine is the result of precipitation of carbonate minerals from ground or surface waters. This means that if you keep an eye out, you can spot leaves, branches or even butterfly ‘fossil marks’ in some walls and floor tiles. This has been a fun game to play during walks to and from the office. As beautiful as it is, it can sometimes feel like Meier did not consider practicalities/logistics as much as aesthetic beauty; the travertine is so hard on your feet, harder than concrete, that with the amount of walking involved in events your feet can feel destroyed at the end of a shift.

Staff moved on site in 1996 and the center officially opened to the public in 1997. I was surprised when I learned this as I had always had this idea in my head that the Getty had been around for decades and decades. This kind of made sense when I realized that I was born the year the site opened. I feel really lucky to have met a few people so far who have been here since the opening; they are able to pinpoint the major events in the development of the center. They have happily recounted things I would have never been privy to otherwise. In one of the underground passage ways there is a mural that runs the entire length of the wall. It is made up of the hand prints and signatures, set in cement, of the original people who worked in the building and opening of the center. Some employees placed their ID’s, glasses and other trinkets in amongst the handprints. I find the mural is both a creative and impactful way of commemorating the work it took to establish the center.

As I pick up on practicalities of the site, such as which elevator is the slowest and which is the nearest restroom at any location (the most common question visitors ask) I am amazed thinking about the logistics of the creation of the site. When I pictured the Getty, I always imagined a museum at the top of a small hill. In reality, it is more of a mini city in a very inconvenient location. There’s the museum, the GRI, the GCI and the foundation, not to mention the restaurant, cafes, grounds locations, trustee house and the PARKING structures. At the base of the site visitors arrive, park and then take a tram to the top, with the most amazing view overlooking some of Bel Air and downtown LA in the distance. Some can park TOH (top of the hill) and there’s a nice shuttle service to take those of us relying on public transport to the top. While it sometimes feels like it takes an eternity to actually reach my desk from the first bus I take in the mornings, it is probably one of the most scenic commutes I will experience and, once you actually arrive, seeing the site in the early morning and at sunset is absolutely worth it. I hope this post has helped create an image of the physical site as well as provide a wee bit of information about its background and importance.

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