A Visit to The Getty Villa
Seeking Perspective

459 Foreground and background, structure and infrastructure: two ways of sitting depicted at the Getty Villa. CLUI photoAFTER SEVERAL YEARS AND $275 million dollars, the Getty Villa has opened again to the public, the "largest art event" in Los Angeles this year. Just as we reported, in 1997, on the opening of the new Getty Center, that great cultural acropolis in the hills of Brentwood, we visited the "neo" classical Villa for a preview in January, a few weeks before it opened to the public, and are submitting the following report.

Rising up out of the parking garage, visitors catch just a glance of the site, entering quickly into the Entry Pavillion, a rectangular box of a space, with high walls, evocative indeed, as the architects intended, of an archeological excavation. Encouraged by a greeter, we boarded an elevator that took us out of the pit, and into an open vista which serves as an orientation station for visitors. It overlooks the main features of the site: the amphitheater, the main entrance of the museum, the coffee shop, the Ranch House. In front of us, an interpretive plaque laid it all out.

Descending into the main building, it is immediately clear that this is a masterpiece of technical museumology. The details feel as solid as if the whole place were carved out of one megalith. The classical sculptures seemed renewed in their crisp curatorial frames. We soon became seduced by the infrastrucure at the Villa: the door hinges, the dataport covers in the floor, the touchscreen enclosures, and the fiber optics in the display cases. The objects in the museum look good because of these things, this enchanting exhibition of faultless hardware. From the tiniest coin in the tiniest vitrine to the mock-up of the Herculaneum Villa itself that houses the galleries, to the lavishly landscaped grounds that surround the buildings: the Villa is a Russian doll of a museum, a display case within a display case within a display case.

Heading past the custom exit signs, out the back door, past the exposed water and gas shut off valves near the service entrance, past the loading docks with their open maws, past the magnificent battery of vents of the Villa’s air plant, we sought the edge, the back of the backspace, to find the final layer of infrastructure for this 64 acre meticulous macrocosm. Following electrical cables strewn on the ground, up a path behind the Ranch House (the building that J. Paul used to live in) that is now a UCLA Conservation Research Center, this overgrown path seems forgotten, from another timeperhaps J. Paul walked up this path during moments of lone contemplation? The path follows a small dry stream bed, or is it a drainage rill slope, then peters out in thickets of eucalyptus litter. Higher and higher we climb until finally: the perimeter road. The cyclone fence across the road is barbed, and old, this has been the limit for a while. We look at the backs of signs that say "No Trespassing Private Property Trained Service Dogs In Use," facing out. This is the end of the Villa.

460 The perimeter road around the back side of the Getty Villa. CLUI photoThe perimeter road encircles the back part of the property. It is like a corridor through a gallery of infrastructural artifacts: utility vaults in the ground, with lids labeled "security," indicating a network of buried cable; the DWP water meter, the water connection to the outside; steerable weatherproof security cameras on poles; portapotties for maintenance crews; landscaping equipment sheds; portable air compressor trailers; and stainless steel irrigation control switchboxes, poking out of the ground like blank and mute interpretive kiosks.

461 The perimeter road around the back side of the Getty Villa. CLUI photo

463 Some of the incidental “new world” exhibits along the Villa’s perimeter road, including a Vermeer 1800 Turbo brush chipper. CLUI photo

Finally, perspective. The service road reaches the highest point of land on the property, offering views of the Villa below, and of the ocean beyond. It echoes, for a moment, San Simeon, that other private house and dreamscape of a wealthy man, hell bent on collecting things, built north of Los Angeles, in hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which was opened, over his dead body, to the public. A place J. Paul Getty visited once, as a guest of Hearst’s, perhaps laying the seed for this version. But the Villa’s production value makes it more than a spectacle of one man’s unfettered accumulations. It is as strong an argument as has been made yet of the incongruity of the old world’s place in America.