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Whither Architecture in Los Angeles?

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Could you imagine Los Angeles without the Getty Museum? If that serene white chunk of Italian marble nestled above the 405 suddenly removed its bulk to some other parts, would you notice? Would you care?

An article in yesterday morning's LA Times reconsiders the Richard Meier-designed edifice in the light of its 10th anniversary, and in doing so, asks some important questions about the nature and integrity of architecture in Los Angeles.

"there is no question that the Getty Center permanently altered the way we think about new high-profile buildings here. The thumbnail version of its influence goes like this: The ways in which the complex successfully took advantage of L.A.'s climate, landscape and culture are worth copying; the ways in which it remained separate from the city, physically and symbolically, or tried to impose an inflexible approach to architecture better suited to Manhattan or Dessau, are worth avoiding. "Ultimately, however, exploring the question of the Getty's connection to Los Angeles raises another: In a global city as wildly diverse and prone to amnesia as this one, what does fidelity to local context or the spirit of a place mean?"

Does our architecture reveal a sense of the the people who live here, a sense of geographic place? Do we even
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have an architectural history?? Let's keep piling the questions on: how many landmark buildings can you name in the metropolitan area? Okay, it's been getting easier to pick out those landmarks in the past few years: Disney Hall, of course, the CalTrans building, Ennis House, Griffith Observatory, City Hall, the Eames House. There are lots of beautiful estate homes, funky little storybook cottages, unidentifiable turreted monstrosities, and smaller architectural fancies like the Chiat/Day building in Venice (the Binoculars building). Our major universities are of course graced with many elegant and modern facades (ignore Bunche Hall, please), and UCLA and USC are both home to famed schools of architecture. But the landscape of our central business districts -- Downtown, Miracle Mile, Century City -- is hardly distinctive.

And landmark, city-defining structures? When France shot fireworks off of a brilliantly glittering Tour Eiffel at the Millenium, we rather feebly lit up the Hollywood sign. The most famous house in the whole city might just be the Playboy Mansion. What do people think about when they think about the L.A. landscape? The beach and the freeway (hey, not half bad!). "But Carrie, Los Angeles just hasn't built up the same architectural residues that Paris -- a city more than a thousand years old -- has managed to do," you say. Is this one area of the cultural map where we are shortchanged by our lack of history?

The answer to "would you miss the Getty?" is, of course, for me, an obvious one. Yes, a million times yes -- I can't remember what life was like without it. Even though I only visit a few times a year now, it's a comforting presence, brooding in its freeway-adjacent aerie like a broad white dove. And my own personal history is filled with moments that revolve around that white marbled space -- the first time I ever visited the museum coincided with the first time I ever took public transportation in Los Angeles (you could catch the bus from UCLA up the hill). I dated a guy who worked there, and there's honestly nothing that beats an employee holiday party up at that joint. Have you rolled down the grass on one of those sloping green hills in the gardens (oh the gardens!!!)? What better way to spend a leisurely summer afternoon (or spring or fall or winter afternoon, our weather rules for outdoor museum-going) than stretched out with a book under an umbrella, looking down over the Great Big Bad City from a clear, pristine perch?

But herein lies the rub -- anybody will admit that the building by far trumps the art its houses. I mean, 16th century decorative vases have their place and all, but I'd much rather spend my "art" time at MOCA or LACMA. And let's not even get into the many, MANY troubling controversies the museum has embroiled itself in these past years re: STEALING STUFF. The art isn't the point at the Getty, that's not why you go. The Getty itself is the point. We go up to look down, to look at the great grey gnarled paved mess to which we will return, we go to look at ourselves. We, Angelenos, are the building, the building is L.A.

The fact that structures like the Getty and Disney Hall and the CalTrans building downtown have all been erected in the last ten years bodes well, I think for the future of our city's skin. All of these buildings are protean, modern, controversial, maybe a little too under the influence of foreigners, ready to shout aloud into the hills or melt away into the mountainside. Just like us. Right?

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