The Getty Museum Garden in Los Angeles
Garten Praxis, October 2001

Never has a major American garden inspired such vigorous public debate across such broad battle lines as has the ambitious central garden designed by Robert Irwin at the new Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Attackers and defenders quickly manned the battlements as Irwin’s design revealed itself to be dismissive of the established wisdom of plantsmen, landscape architects, and in particular that of Richard Meier, museum architect and creator of this American acropolis of monolithic white marble.

Famously described by Irwin as “a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art”, the garden consists of a “chain of water” beginning as a stream from the museum above and descending a steep slope hidden beneath giant boulders from Wyoming and South Dakota, hand selected by Irwin. An angular, zigzag pathway descends above the stream, lacing through a formal allee of Eastern Sycamore trees ( Platinus acerifolia “Yarwood”) . The water reemerges mid-slope onto a central plaza dominated by six towering steel armatures covered with bougainvillea. This plaza overlooks the grand finale, a richly planted circular labyrinth terminating in a water maze. Concentric walkways are planted above the water maze with a dazzling variety of perennials, annuals, vines, roses and tropicals. Plantings on the eastern bank of the bowl are cooler “morning colors”, the western side is packed with hot pinks, reds and oranges.

Irwin’s defenders are artists and advocates of boundary-breaking, rule-trampling creativity. When questioned about the criticisms , Irwin laughingly retorts “Let’s just think of this as art”.

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight replies to critic’s rants with an assertion : “The great thing about a garden folly is that it’s, well, a folly. In a world of practical decorum, rationalism suddenly doesn’t apply. When the folly is conceived as the garden itself, rather than a discrete structure within a garden, then be prepared to suspend every expectation.”

To put the overall picture in perspective, it is important to remember that Irwin created the labrythine opus with some profoundly limiting caveats and equally extravagant resources. The garden must hold its own in a dialog with the massive amphitheater looming above like the wall of the Roman Coliseum. It must accommodate well over one million visitors a year, be wheelchair friendly, and lastly, it must amuse and entertain many of those one million who do not garden and do not especially care about gardens. It accomplishes all this and more.

When Irwin began to select plants, he did it his own way, much as any artist selects materials. He chose plants from catalogs, cut out the paper illustrations and made a collage. His decision to use azaleas (Redbird, Pink Lace and Duke de Rohan) in the lower “floating” knot-shaped planters sitting in the water, masses of crepe myrtles ( Lagerstroemia indica ‘Muskogee’) and other choices inflamed the horticultural authorities. Artists chant “Why not?” This creation is not a presented as a garden per se, but as an exercise in the utilization of the garden motif as art.

Guy Cooper and Gordon Taylor, in their visionary publication, Gardens of the Future, reflect this interpretation of Irwin’s creation: “When he accepted the challenge he confirmed that he was not a gardener. However, we consider the Lower Central Garden as a masterpiece of site-generated landscape design. Its main elements have emerged from Irwin’s deep analysis of the site, but they also reflect some of the most expressive and important moments in the garden history of many cultures. The design incorporates the serpentine, the zigzag, a Japanese reverence for the placing of stones, the formal allee, the circle, a variation on the spiral, the labyrinth, the terrace, viewing points and a unique and expressive use of plants.”

A journey down through the shaded stream bed, with the raucous sound of water chattering beneath the path and out into the shadow of the massive parasols of vine-coated metal bars to the edge of the waterfall is a unique experience with the unexpected. It is a submersion into an M.C. Escher-meets-California hedonism of form, color, and merging geometric lines.

Water provides the essential sense of continuity through the entire experience of the garden. The water actually originates above the garden space from architect Meier’s much more formal environment. Dropping through a mysterious alcove from above into an artificial grotto, the water immediately disappears beneath the most massive stones in the garden. As water emerges from beneath progressively smaller boulders, the plant palette shifts from silver grey such as Artemisia, Helicrysum, Convolvula cneorum and Erisymum “Bowles Mauve”, to green collections including Euphorbia , Hellibore, Blue Oat Grass, (Helictotrochion sempervirens), Fescue and an occasional ghostly Dudleya, to finish below in a circus of red, yellow and blue hues. Blue-flowered marguerite ( Felicia amelloides “Varegata”) , eerie red pencil bush ( Euphorbia tirucalli “Sticks of Fire”) and coral plant ( Russelia equisetaformus) , mingle with spears of New Zealand Flax ( Phormium), pale yellow Nicotiana, pink flowered Geranium maderense, purple Heliotrope and pale Abelia x grandiflora “Francis Mason” at the bottom of the allee. The sound of running water also increases to a crescendo, rushing out from the colorful finale to plunge over the main waterfall into the bowl of the lower garden. An arching crescent metal grid doubles as both a safety rail and a threshold for the plunge into the lower garden. Pie-shaped geometric quadrants of contrasting groundcovers ( Antennaria, Delosperma, Thymus) and incongruous rows of wicker armchairs beneath the sculptural “trees” lend further drama and offbeat humor to the garden’s increasingly playful atmosphere. Bright red Bouganvilla “Tahitian Dawn” will ultimately cover the structures. The sycamore trees may eventually reach a height of more that 100 feet, and Irwin is reported to note that only later will they achieve proper scale for his intended effect

Throughout the garden an additional sense of mass and stylistic continuity is achieved with use of sheets of Cor-Ten steel. Abstract panels of the thick metal plate form the retaining walls for the zigzag path and bridges that crisscross the stream. They reappear as edging for the tiers of rock lining the lower streambed. Wide curving arcs of brown steel embrace the groupings of chairs under the armatures in the central plaza. The slashing, graphic figure describing the final descent of the path into the lower bowl is defined by the same steel plates. Steel also defines the edge of the boxwood (Myrsine africana) fringed paths in the plant galleries there as well. Everywhere in the garden this omnipresence of steel lends a powerful sense of rooted mass, and along with the stone that forms the stream bank and the steep walls overlooking the lower bowl, echoing back to the omnipresent mass and density of the museum buildings.

Some critics are miffed that Irwin’s path ultimately leads the visitor down and away from the panoramic view of the city and ocean and but he is intent on keeping the experience of immersion in the garden . The stream plunges straight off into a page from the art of Andy Goldsworthy. Like Goldsworthy’s inspired constructions, Irwin’s approach manipulates familiar natural materials into an highly artificial arrangement. The plantings in the lower amphitheater present a kaleidoscope of plants, sky, and water, edged with banks crepe myrtle and flowering garlic ( Allium tuberosm). The rim of the white marble museum looms above and the cryptic knot garden of azaleas, surrounded by a field of dusty rose-colored Kalenchoe pumila, reprises the curve below.

Seasonal mass plantings of cosmos or dahlias shift the color palate. Irwin had a generous budget for plant maintenance and replacement Large display beds of annuals are commonly seen in other public botanic gardens or corporate showplaces without inspiring comment. When Irwin simply applies these strategies and resources to his more unconventional purpose, it arouses outrage.

Much has been made of the contrast and conflict between the monolithic forms of Meier’s impassive, travertine architecture and the zany, colorful chaos of Irwin’s garden. This contrast can clearly seen as a direct reflection of the men behind the respective parts of the Getty Center. A visit to the museum, with its stark white-on-white plazas and fountains and classical bluntness of a Grecian stone quarry is a study in monochromatic architectural space. One has the sensation of being on board some great ocean liner moored on a hill over Los Angeles. Meier’s buildings are daunting in scale, and unyielding in their sheer indifference to men, nature or time. Irwin’s garden, on the other hand, grows like a giant tropical flower bursting from the seams of this starkness with unrepentant gaiety, firmly rooted in the glory of the seasonal moment. Seen from above, the garden’s overall layout does indeed replicate that of a plant, with its stem ( the stream path) , flowing sap ( water) and riotous colorful round blossom ( the lower bowl) blooming with every color of the rainbow. It is sassy, playful, enigmatic and unpredictable. Like Alice’s trip through the looking glass, visitors must abandon expectations and travel into a new country.

This contrast is ultimately and quintessentially about art and about American culture with two staunchly original and individual creations juxtaposed against each other in the most audacious city in the world…….the City of Angels.

Knight put it thus : “As a artist, Irwin’s job is to first make us unknow what we thought we knew. Thus refreshed, we are ready to experience pleasures previously unimagined. Rather than a moralizing Virtue Garden, Irwin has given us an eye-popping Perceptual Garden, filled with unexpected delights. For a cultural powerhouse like the Getty, what could be better that that?”

Charles Mann

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Located north of the Los Angeles airport on the 405 freeway, the Getty Center is open Saturday, Sunday from 10A.M. to 6 P.M., Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 A.M. to 7 P.M. and Thursday and Friday from 10 A.M. to P.M. Closed Mondays and major holidays.

Admission is free. Parking is $5.00 with reservations, or take the MTA Bus #561 or Santa Monica Big Blue Bus #14.

Call 310-440-7300 or on the Web at www.getty.edu.