Heaven in City of Angels
The Getty Centre is a cultural treasure / Picture: Monica Leslie

The white, ultra-modern beacon is hard to miss aloft its private hill overlooking LA's major freeway. Famed for its architecture at least as much as for the collections within, The Getty Centre not only houses fine art but is itself a masterpiece. Designed by architect Richard Meier, the modern campus opened in 1997 as an expansion of the original Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades.

Today, The Getty Centre and The Getty Villa together operate as the combined Getty Museum. The Getty Centre houses pieces such as classical and impressionist European paintings, drawings, pastels and sculptures, as well as modern American and European photographs, while the original Getty Villa holds the museum's collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.

To reach the Getty Centre, visitors park underground before ascending the hillside by tram. Upon emerging from the tram, I found I had been delivered to a wide stone landing, looking out to the green hills beyond. To my left the museum rose up magnificently. The clean horizontal lines and simple rectangle motifs of the buildings contrasted perfectly with a gently curving roof line, rendering the centre inherently beautiful.

For me, the genius of the architecture, however, is not so much in the construction alone as in the interactions it encourages between the viewer, the building and the surrounds. As the viewer moves through the campus, the gaze is constantly drawn towards new and different perspectives, each view perfectly framed and complemented by the structure.

In this sense, Meier's art echoed the expertise demonstrated in the paintings within: as the masters skilfully lay down their brushstrokes to lead the eye through their paintings to rest upon the desired subject, so Meier has constructed his lines to the same end. He alternately highlights the elegance of his museum and the beauty of the Los Angeles cityscape below.

In every way, the physical Getty symbolises its purpose. The tram ride up the hillside represents not only a change in physical elevation for visitors, but an elevation in mental state above and away from daily worries. And like the art within, the structure offers new perspectives of the everyday life being carried out in the city below. In the white cathedral on top of the hill, visitors can pursue beauty, except, in contrast to most famous churches today, onlookers are not required or expected to pay a cent.

The centre's impressive permanent collection boasts an ensemble of impressionism - Monet, Manet, Pissarro, Renoir and Van Gogh's Irises. Having previously viewed (and been content with) exhibitions displaying only one piece from one of these painters, I was practically in raptures given this opportunity to see so many masterworks in one place.

Notable other works include the older classical paintings, luminous marble sculptures, and a small but fine collection of pastels such as Degas' Dancer Taking a Bow (The Star).

Perhaps the most distinctive piece in the centre's collection, however, is The Central Garden, designed by Robert Irwin to be "a sculpture in the form of a garden". The beauty of the garden is that it allows visitors to be immersed in artwork, and enjoying it fully is a dynamic experience.

Visitors' first impression of it is from above, over the descending grassy slope and meandering stream which twists and turns its way down to a receptive pool and the concentric hedge circles surrounding it.

As you enter the garden, the paved path leads back and forth with the stream. At each turn, the stones beneath the water change shape, as if through an accelerated weathering process. In so doing, they highlight the key theme of this living piece of art as inscribed on the footpath: "Always changing, never twice the same."

Finally, among the circular hedgerows, you look back up to be met with a view that could be Heaven. Bundles of trees, growing up in the shapes of vertical cornucopias, trumpet flowers on either side of a cascading waterfall. The pristine monolith in the background further adds to a sense of the surreal. Every component contributes to evoking such a poignant atmosphere such that Irwin's garden, which is "aspiring to be art", undeniably overachieves in this endeavour.

A perfect view over the garden is available from the Garden Terrace Cafe. Additionally, visitors have the option of eating at the more upscale Plaza Level Restaurant.

All in all, The Getty Centre was, to me, a utopian vision. Inside and out, this unique museum exudes beauty and offers the ideal escapism sought by LA natives and travellers alike. Given the multitude of attractions on offer in LA, deciding exactly how to allocate what precious time you have on your trip there will always, inevitably, involve some hard decision. The Getty Centre, however, stands out as a highbrow cultural icon. Its mere presence characterises Los Angeles as something more than Hollywood glamour and big-city life.

The West Australian

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