Whatever the level of esteem Los Angeles holds in the world today, it is in for an enormous leap come this month with the opening of the new Getty Center. For me, a visit to the still-unfinished enterprise was no less than mind-boggling. This project is a marvel, and surely a testimonial to the wisdom and creative genius employed over the fourteen years of planning that went into it, as well as to the foresight that the choice of the total property affirms. Just selecting the 110-acre site, formerly owned by UCLA and nestled in the Santa Monica mountains overlooking the San Diego Freeway, was brilliant. Moreover, in addition to an immensity of space that should be more than enough to satisfy the institution's needs for the next couple of centuries, it offers a view--rather, a multiplicity of views--that are hardly less remarkable than the structures that make it up.

Once the building interiors are completed and the collection installed the importance of the views will recede a bit. But on this day--which also happened to be one of those gorgeous, cloud-free, wonderfully clear afternoons we get a lot more of now than we did a generation back--the surrounding landscape, taking in the Palisades and Pacific to the west, the scope of the L.A. Basin looking past downtown to the San Gabriels to the east, was a major show. If AQMD can keep doing its job, this will remain just that even with all of the art to see.

Beginning with the tram ride from the parking structure at the bottom of the hill to the facility at the top, already deemed a drag by staffers (the brass gets to tool up a private drive that bypasses the tram), the mountainous topography somewhat mirrored in the curves of the 405 Freeway below, it a tour of a landscape installed mostly by Nature, then supplemented somewhat by teams of gardners. The views are not likely to change significantly over time, as the total acreage owned by the Getty includes almost all of the hilly terrain that surrounds the actual site.

Once arrived at the cluster of structures, what the architect, Richard Meier, calls an "assemblage," that now houses the various facilities that were formerly spread over L.A.'s West Side, and the still-maturing Central Garden designed by artist Robert Irwin, the total integration of the complex again far exceeds expectations. The numerous vistas that demand focus is, trust me, spellbinding. My own favorite on this first visit was one enclosed by the museum building and an adjoining pavilion, the two forming a vertically disposed frame. If you choose to observe views from the museum's central courtyard, one corner of your eye cannot help but remain fixed on an elongated pool and rows of trees. These bring to mind the Malibu facility, though the pool here possesses none of the grandiosity that characterizes the predecessor.

Bear in mind, however, that the museum--itself five-buildings surroundingthat courtyard--is only the most important of seven sections into which the complex is divided in order to house the seven Institutes and Programs that make up the occupied development, itself only a small part of the nearly one million square feet of space that the whole encompasses.

Then there is the architecture. If modern design might be considered inappropriate for a museum whose contents represent civilization's history back to the ancients (work from that earlier period will remain the mainstay of the Malibu Getty), it is in no way overly assertive, nor is it hostile to the achievements represented by the many centuries of art that it houses. Rather, it is extrememly hospitable. Indeed, for the visitor, the very gesture of suggested by the shape of the complex is that of outstretched arms. The glow of light that filters from the large, square blocks of rough-textured, light-colored travertine emitting sparkles of coral--90,000 blocks of the stone were shipped daily from Italy in cargo containers over about a two-year period--are employed throughout, lending the massiveness warmth.

My visit concentrated on the Museum building, with perfunctory looks at the library, which is planned to house about a million books, not to mention five million photographs--you have to think in the millions here, if not billions considering the cost of construction--and the 450-seat auditorium, where the seats even look comfy! I did have lunch at the cafeteria, already swarming with employees at noon, but I was hardly interested in eating.

Inside the Museum a similar radiance emanates from above to underscore the fact that light, natural light, is a key element, no less within than without. The very tall, circular lobby is bathed in luminosity, much as are the sky-lighted galleries to which it leads. Each of the five pavilions are designed to present the work each contains to appear as it did in its own time, while also subtly asserting the Southern-Californianess of the locale.

Back when the Malibu Getty opened in 1974 it was, even then, a giant leap from the structure that housed the facility in its previous life. That was the Getty Ranch House, still standing today on a forested hilltop not far from its successor. Originally constructed during the 1920s, it was enlarged and significantly remodeled after J. Paul Getty purchased it in 1945, intending it to serve as a weekend retreat.By 1954, however, Getty, who had only occasionally occupied the premises, declared that he would convert it into a museum, and made the collection he began acquiring in the '30s available to public view. Yet, after moving to England and fearful of flying, he never returned to see it. Nor did he ever visit the Villa, even though Getty lived two years beyond its opening.

The Ranch House was enlarged again in 1957 to function for the next twenty years in accommodating Getty's growing aggregation. Its first leadership was provided by art historian Paul Wescher, a specialist in 18th- and 19th-Century art, and UCLA Professor of Medieval Art, Karl Birkmeier. Next came Burton Frederickson, now Senior Research Curator, who arrived in 1965. A UCLA student then, he has since earned the singular position of being the Getty's longest working staff member.

Under Frederickson's hand, the Getty's Provenance Index was developed and expanded. He also brought in many of his fellows, most often graduate art history students, all of them working in a part-time capacity. For them the Getty would furnish credentials to prepare them for the positions they hold today. These include Paul Karlstrom, now Western United States Director of the Archives of American Art [see Schipper's column on this subject, June, 1996 --Ed.], his wife Anne who is, according to Paul at least, the Getty's "Woman-Friday," and Head of Publications at the San Francisco Museums. John Bullard went on to his present position as Diector of the New Orleans Museum of Art, and Dewey Mosby serves as Gallery Director at Colgate University. The list of distinguished alumni is extensive.

Although none of this group were trained in museum work, learning-by-doing at the Getty covered duties of a distinctly broader range than might be expected. Together with research, guard duty, escorting visitors and lecturing, much of the work was on the level of maintenance, if not housework. Not to mention cleaning out the huge surplus of exhibition catalogues that would overflow closets. On such occasions Dewey Mosby regularly alerted me to rescue them from the trash. These I would duly transfer to my car, supplying those unneeded to the Beverly Hills Library, then building an art book collection. And if there was such a thing as overtime, it was spent at the well-remembered, lively--to say the least--Saturday night parties at Frederickson's house in Santa Monica, the table covered with trays of refreshments fresh from Fedco!

Indeed, the House offered an atmosphere that was far removed from the awesomeness that the Museum environment presents today. The opportunity to work there was consider a privilege that possessed prestigious overtones. However for most of the young part-timers the job was handled with little seriousness. In recollection, Karlstrom asserts, "we called it the 'Children's Museum,' run by kids who cavorted in the idyllic, pastoral setting like nymphs and satyrs. . . .I imagine the place now bears no resemblance to what it was in the 'Classical Era.' And I suppose those of us who were there, benignly led by Burton, preferred it as it was," he confesses. However, "I'm nonetheless in awe of the about-to-open cultural utopia in Brentwood."

Another former student-employee, one who remained at the Getty until his premature death, was the late David Renne, an assistant conservator of antiquities. Renne was, along with Frederickson, often summoned to London to meet with The Boss, and he also traveled to Italy from time to time to examine potential treasures for the collection. Then there also were some "treasures" that Mr. Getty located himself. I recall a slide lecture given by Frederickson (although he himself claims not to remember the occasion) on the subject of these, a hilarious one dealing with what he termed "the basement collection," fakes, and mistakes.

Visiting the Center today, the awesome assemblage that will shortly lead the Getty to preeminence among museums around the world bears no resemblance to its beginnings in the Ranch House. No doubt the legendarily parsimonious J.P. would be pleased to know that the museum bearing his name has attained that position, even despite the billions that comprised the cost. Yet, one can't help wondering if Getty, who at one time required linens for the Ranch House to be purchased from J.C. Penny, would have permitted the level of opulence the new complex presents to become a reality.