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LA's Getty Villa

Misha Gravenor The new Entry Pavilion at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, designed by Machado & Silvetti

Photo: Misha Gravenor

With the creation of the Getty Center, the Richard Meier–designed, billion-dollar acropolis inaugurated in 1997 in Los Angeles, the much-loved Roman-style villa the Getty Museum had called home since 1974 began to fade from the city's cultural memory. This was hardly surprising: The old museum, housed in a loose re-creation of a first-century villa on oil tycoon J. Paul Getty's Malibu ranch, was hidden in a canyon off the Pacific Coast Highway; the new, unabashedly modern Getty crowned a hilltop above the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles, as visible a part of the city's sprawling landscape as the Hollywood sign. But with the late-January reopening of the renovated Getty Villa and a greatly expanded research and conservation campus devoted to preeminent collections of Roman, Greek, and Etruscan antiquities, classical architecture is once again front and center in the institution's public image.

The J. Paul Getty Trust selected the Boston firm Machado & Silvetti Associates to plan the 64-acre site overlooking the Pacific. Argentine-born architects (and Harvard professors) Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti were entrusted with renovating and upgrading the villa, which had been shuttered since 1997 when the art collection moved to the Getty Center; remodeling the Spanish-style ranch house that Getty had turned into his first museum, in 1954; and building new facilities and conservation labs to accommodate a range of research and scholarly programs. The $275 million project was complicated by steeply sloping topography, difficult neighbors, and the inescapably imposing presence of the existing museum. "It was difficult to give it unity," says the scholarly, erudite Silvetti. "Our greatest struggle was figuring out what kind of architecture to put next to a Roman house. We had to defer to the old villa as the prima donna of the place."

The villa undoubtedly remains the focus of the Malibu property. The earlier transfer of European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts to the Getty Center allows the entire villa to be dedicated to the institution's collection of more than 44,000 Greek, Roman, and Etruscan artifacts—one of the finest in America, alongside those of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The villa displays more than 1,200 of these pieces, some of which have made headlines in recent months: former curator Marion True went on trial in November in Rome, charged with conspiring with two dealers to receive illegally excavated antiquities. Italian authorities, who have been cracking down on a number of major museums, are demanding the return of a small selection of vases, urns, and statues from the Getty's collection (the trial is expected to continue in June).

Machado and Silvetti studied every inch of the campus, from the landscaping of rosemary and thyme, olive and cypress trees, and other flora evocative of the ancient Mediterranean to the carefully considered approach that guides visitors to the front door of the museum. The design was created by the late landscape architect Denis L. Kurutz and implemented by Kornrandolph of Pasadena. "We wanted the buildings to be part of a garden," Silvetti says, "and as the plantings grow, the villa will recede into its surroundings."

The first structure visitors see is the new Entry Pavilion, a two-story space open to the sky, lined by towering walls of poured concrete with horizontal bands that suggest the stratified layers of an archaeological dig. A bold cornice of onyx defines the "ceiling" of blue overhead. A staircase leads from the pavilion to an elevated path overlooking the entire compound: a new multistory building housing a café, shop, and 250-seat auditorium; a 450-seat amphitheater for performances of classical drama against the backdrop of the villa's two-story Corinthian colonnade; and, beyond, the new conservation labs and J. Paul Getty's former house, transformed into offices and a 20,000-volume research library. Along the way, cinematically framed views unfold of architecture, landscape, and the Pacific Ocean in the distance.

Working with the company SPF:architects, from Los Angeles, Machado and Silvetti created the new modern structures from a rich variety of materials whose colors allude to the palette of ancient Roman architecture: buttery yellow amarillo triana stone from Spain, black marble from China, red porphyry stone, teak-like afrormosia wood. The base used for many of the walls is the iconic travertine that Meier employed at the new Getty Center, striking a common chord between the two campuses. "The stone has become identified with the Getty—they even sell pieces of it as souvenirs," Silvetti notes.

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