LA's Getty Villa
Published: April 2009
By Raul Barreneche
Amid controversy about the provenance of some of its classical antiquities, Los Angeles's Getty Villa opens after a 12-year renovation.
With the creation of the Getty Center, the Richard Meierdesigned, 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.
The star attraction is, of course, the villa. The original structure was inspired by (though
it's not an exact replica of) the ﬁrst-century Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum.
The luxurious seaside dwelling, thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar's father-in-law,
was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 a.d. "It's an odd building, but a fairly
good hypothesis of what a Roman house was like," Silvetti says. Although some of the villa's
original details were adapted from the Villa dei Papiri, most were drawn from other houses
at Pompeii and Herculaneum, including decorative ﬂoor and ceiling patterns and the
frieze surrounding the roof opening in the atrium.
Machado and Silvetti continued this approach, mining multiple classical sources. "We
tried to make the villa even better, improving what we could and making it more classically
correct. We tried to be accurate whenever possible." Still, they took liberties—with
the dramatic bronze, glass, and yellow-marble staircase linking the Inner Peristyle to the
second-ﬂoor galleries ("There were no grand stairs in Roman houses," Silvetti admits)
and the playful, intricately patterned new terrazzo and mosaic ﬂoors in the renovated
galleries, which Silvetti calls "pure invention." Because the building itself doesn't purport
to be a historically exact re-creation, Machado and Silvetti's informed additions seem an
The villa museum's curatorial shift away from displaying a mix of paintings, decorative arts,
and ancient artifacts meant that once-dark galleries where fragile canvases and armoires had
been displayed could be filled with natural light from windows, which is preferable for viewing
classical statuary. Indeed, architectural fragments and marble busts and sculptures—such
as a prized marble statue of Faustina the Elder—take on new vibrancy in such daylight.
There are no diffusing scrims or other visible controls to reduce sharp contrasts in light
One of the most dramatic transformations is in the second-ﬂoor gallery surrounding
the villa's Inner Peristyle gardens. Machado and Silvetti turned what was a series of dark
enﬁlade galleries with heavy brocade wallpaper and parquet ﬂoors into spacious,
vaulted, light-ﬁlled halls overlooking the courtyard through dozens of new windows.
The architects also added windows overlooking the atrium, which they painted in a more appropriate
palette—in classical terms—of gold, robin's-egg blue, and brick red, and exposed
the compluvium to the sky, as it would have been in ancient times, when the cutaway let in
rainwater, which was collected in a cistern, or impluvium, below. (At the Getty Villa, a retractable
skylight can be drawn shut in inclement weather.) "In the old building, you never knew where
you were—you were always moving through closed rooms. Now you have a very clear sense
of orientation," Silvetti explains.
The 23 permanent galleries are organized thematically, rather than chronologically or by
cultural or geographic origin. There are now intriguingly titled galleries such as Dionysos
and the Theater, Monsters and Minor Deities, and Women and Children in Antiquity. One room,
devoted to prehistoric Cycladic art, features stark, surprisingly modern-looking sculptures
that could be mistaken for works by Brancusi. On the second ﬂoor, ﬁve galleries
will host rotating and on-loan exhibitions.
Much of the effort and expense involved in the renovation will be invisible to visitors,
including a complete upgrade for disabled access and a reinforcing web of steel hidden behind
the gallery walls and embedded in the ﬂoors. "You could hang a Bentley on them," jokes
Silvetti about the newly strengthened and shock-resistant walls. Curators are able to suspend
heavy marble friezes from the walls and bolt statues to the terrazzo ﬂoors through
an unseen system of anchors designed to protect these artifacts in an earthquake. Many of
the Getty's more delicate treasures, including Hellenistic jewelry, silver drinking vessels
from the time of Alexander the Great, and a collection of Greek vases, are displayed in exactingly
detailed, German-built bronze and glass vitrines incorporating the latest in antiseismic technology.
Every case conceals a ball-bearing base isolator that will allow the artifacts to "go with
the ﬂow" during a tremor—that is, slide along with the side-to-side shaking so
they won't break while resisting the quake's motion.
The huge cost and care that have gone into the project are invisible in another way: notably,
admission to the villa is free. However, tickets must be booked prior to a visit, either on-line
or by telephone. (No walk-ins are permitted.) But the planning will be worth it. Though museum
ofﬁcials expect to accommodate about 1,500 visitors a day, entries spaced at 30-minute
intervals will allow for smooth circulation of guests. Visitors will be treated to a quiet,
intimate experience with these treasured antiquities that so beguiled their collector, J.
Paul Getty, in a setting worthy of a Roman emperor yet thoroughly up-to-date. The ancient
world has never looked better.
Located 25 miles west of downtown Los Angeles and one mile north of Sunset Blvd., the Getty
Villa is open ThursdayMonday, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays and major holidays. 17985 Pacific
Coast Hwy., Malibu. Admission is free ($7 to park), but advance, timed tickets are required;
these can be obtained on-line at www.getty.edu
or by calling 310/440-7300. (Reservations for groups of nine or more must be made by phone.)
"Antiquity & Photography: Early Views of Ancient Mediterranean Sites"
(Through May 1)
"The Getty Villa Reimagined"
A look at the development of the expansion andrenovation project. (Through May 8)
"Molten Color: Glassmaking in Antiquity"
An extraordinary collection of glass dating from
1400 B.C. to the 7th century A.D. (Through July 24)