When the new rescues the old
The Getty Villa, once dismissed as Roman Disneyland, gets a new lease of life through renovation marked by restraint and conceptual clarity.
PHOTOS: A. SRIVATHSAN
BLENDING IN: The Getty Villa (left) and the additions make for a quiet harmony .
WHEN all possible phrases of ridicule are summoned with good reason and heaped on a building, there is little hope that it would ever gain respect. Even if the builder is one of the wealthiest and the building hosts a priceless collection of art. A building banished as kitsch seldom has any hope. But almost in a fairy tale fashion, overnight, the ugly duckling of building turns into an adorable delight. This is the story of the much-maligned Getty Villa in Malibu, Los Angeles.
Attempt at recreation
Getty Villa was built in the early 1970s by J. Paul Getty, the oilman millionaire. He was the author of the book How to be Rich and had a large collection of art and artefacts. This villa was built to resemble the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. It is said that when Getty built this villa, much of Vila Papiri had not been excavated. Hence, the new building was built imaginatively and sourced from other Roman villas. The architecture was a serious attempt at recreation and that was its undoing. It became an instant target of criticism and was dubbed "Roman Disneyland". The involvement of Hollywood set designers, its location in Los Angeles and its genesis as a rich man's fantasy made it appear even shallower. Critics condemned it, but its artefacts attracted crowds. The villa became the Getty Museum in 1974
When Paul Getty died in 1976, he bequeathed his many millions to the trust. Getty Villa continued to exhibit artefacts until 1997 when it was closed for renovation. Meanwhile the trust had built its new centre in Brentwood and this acropolis-like complex never managed to get rave reviews in spite of having a star architect like Richard Meier design it.
After many stretched years and spending about 275 million dollars, the Getty Villa is now open after remodelling, redesign and new additions.
The villa is dedicated to the Greek, Roman and Etruscan arts and the campus houses research facilities, a café and a theatre. Machado and Silvetti, Argentina-born and Boston-based architects were commissioned for this project. It is not only the tasteful restraint but also conceptual clarity of the designers that make this entire project worthy of a look and visit.
Talking about the design, Jorge Silvetti explained that the new architecture neither contrasts nor emulates the architecture of the museum building but attempts to coherently hold many elements of the complex together. The new additions stand on the higher contour and the spaces flow around the villa and down to the entrance. The architects' intention was to give it an experience of an archaeological dig.
Play of history
One may not entirely perceive the central idea of archaeology as an ordering principle unless alerted by the architects' words. But the play of history is certainly perceivable and it is the strength of the design. The outdoor theatre, fashioned like a historical amphitheatre, focuses on the old villa, the visual juxtaposition of the colourful villa with the travertine and rough textured concrete additions and the different views of the old and new along the pathway constantly reminds the visitor of the two periods and two intentions at play.
The museum has been remodelled with additional windows, staircases and beautiful floor patterns. The building is not any more trapped unto itself in a self-conscious manner. The new additions and layout releases the old building of its dead weight-like quality. Like a dot in a spline, it is well knit with other elements and facilities. Design holds the new and old together without undermining one or overzealously celebrating the other.
While Getty's architectural merits are lauded without reservation, its practices have recently come for questioning and criticism. It is alleged that Getty had acquired some stolen antiquities. Top administrators have resigned and the trials are not yet over.
Getty has even agreed to return some of its questionable artefacts. If we step aside this ethical issue, which may be difficult, the place could be embraced totally.
However, in the times when the new is viewed with suspect, this architecture enlightens and demonstrates how the new can rescue the old.
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