A Sculpture in the Form of a Garden Aspiring to be Art: Robert Irwin, Richard Meier, and the Getty Center

gardenAny visitor to the Getty Center can only experience its remarkable assemblage of buildings, site design, and landscape architecture as whole, a unified masterwork.

Yet there is more to this assemblage than meets the eye, for in fact this seemingly seamless whole came about through a remarkable altercation between two titans, the architect Richard Meier and the fine artist turned landscape artist, Robert Irwin. Their differing approaches and its resolution is captured in an amazing article “When Fountainheads Collide” by critic Lawrence Weschler in the New Yorker Magazine article of December 8th, 1997.

The Getty is situated at the convergence of two ridges. The natural landform thus forms a sort of Y consisting of two divergent legs separated by a canyon more or less aimed at Santa Monica Bay.

The buildings of the Getty are deployed on these two ridges as per Meier’s original design intent. aerial_obliqueThus they are deployed in either side of the valley, for which Meier envisioned (as Weschler eloquently phrases it):

“an Aristotelian spine, the prime meridian unifying (Meier’s) entire conception” the focal element of which, “wouldn’t be a garden exactly, but, rather, a staircase progression of grand rectangular terraces, with a narrow concrete-girdled watercourse slicing straight down the middle.”

The Museum’s review committee, although generally pleased with the magnificence of Meier’s grand vision, were not quite “on board” with this part of the design. Where Meier seems to have envisioned an axis framed by the buildings and terrain aimed at the Bay, the committee seems to have favored a lushly verdant garden.

Weschler is very careful to describe the process by which the committee gradually and by degrees disassociated from Meier’s vision for the central axis, and gradually commissioned an outside consultant to work in collaboration with Meier. They eventually retained the artist Robert Irwin for that purpose.

Irwin apparently began his commission by systematically analyzing the context within which he found himself designing, namely a valley closed to the north, open to the view shed of Santa Monica Bay to the south, and edged by masses of buildings east and west.

Weschler quotes Irwin as saying, “I began with a set of circumstances. As such, every decision had to make sense within the context of a set of clues. In this case, of course, the surrounding architecture was key. This was not going to be a garden off in a field someplace. I accepted its architectural setting – which was all but overpowering – but that, in turn, raised other questions. For how do you go from such a surround – from buildings like that – down to a flower? So that you can see this petal, that stalk? I began to think in terms of starting from geometry, compounding the geometry to pattern and the pattern to texture. And doing so in both directions – from the flower out to the buildings, and from the buildings back out to the flower.”

Where Meier saw an axis, Irwin (and the committee) saw a point of arrival. Thus Meier’s vision to create an axis and Irwin’s instinct to create a distinct place in direct response and answering to its context came into conflict. Things apparently came to a head in a progress meeting at the Meier office in May 1993. As Weschler writes,

“From Irwin’s point of view, Meier’s office seemed intent on sabotaging efforts at every turn, and, clearly, things couldn’t go on this way.”

“Apparently, the loss of the panorama was at issue, and John Walsh, the museum’s director, recalls trying to assuage Meier’s fury on the subject by asking if he could really object if a visitor who had already been amply exposed to the view lost it for a while, especially if he was going to recover it again on the far side – to which Meier said yes, he could and did. Harry Wolf, an associate of Meier’s, now rose and laid out an elegant, thoughtfully reasoned restatement of Meier’s argument, systematically eviscerating Irwin’s core positions. Irwin smiled beatifically the entire time, waiting for Wolf to finish. Eventually, still smiling, he asked, ‘Do you want a response?’ Wolf said yes, he did. Still smiling, Irwin pronounced, ‘BULL . . . SHIT’.”

‘There followed the longest silence I think I’ve ever endured at a meeting,’ Walsh says. ‘And it was at about that time that we realized that these two guys were simply not going to be able to work together.’

Weschler continues, “In the days that followed, a boundary line – referred to immediately as the DMZ – was established and ground rules were laid down…”

From that date forward the design of the Getty Center including its central garden proceeded on two aerial_closeparallel but separate tracks, with Meier attending to the overall commission including site design, and Irwin attending to the design of the Garden.

Meier’s intent is readily apparent in every aspect of the assemblage: its buildings, grounds, landscape, every intimate detail corresponds to the brilliance of Richard Meier’s overarching vision.

So too, does every element, every single stroke of the painter’s brush – plantings, stonework, even the color of the soil – reflect Irwin’s unique vision of the reality of the Garden.

‘You’ve got to understand, this isn’t an ordinary garden. It’s more like…’, Weschler faithfully records Irwin’s sub-consultant Jim Duggan as saying, ‘It’s more like a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art.’

In Weschler’s essay, this is key. As Weschler notes, in designing the garden Irwin, “planted his standard resolutely in the soil of Becoming, as opposed to that of Being.”

As it turns out, both men were called upon to plant their own respective standards deep into the fertile soil of Becoming. For Irwin could only have designed a living, breathing place in response to the context he encountered, just as Richard Meier could only have designed fully cognizant of the context of the Getty in the history of architecture.

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