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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

July 2006 Issue

What Becomes a Legend Most?
In the case of the Getty Villa, a discreet landscape facelift softens the effect of extensive architectural implants.

By Susan Hines

What Becomes a Legend Most? © 2005 Richard Ross with the courtesy of the J.Paul Getty Trust

The Getty Villa sits above the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California, on a 64-acre site. The original showplace of J. Paul Getty’s extensive antiquities collection, the villa is exactly the kind of elaborate project Americans expect from the really filthy rich. A re-creation of the ancient Roman Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, one of the properties consumed by lava from Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in AD 79, the villa opened for the first time in 1974. While the art establishment decried the anachronistic structure as vulgar, the people embraced it. And in hindsight, who can say the villa is more extreme in scope and ambition than Biltmore, for example, George Vanderbilt’s celebrated Asheville, North Carolina, mansion?

Elaborate, professionally designed landscapes are integral to the success of both the Getty Villa and the Biltmore Estate. Their gardens were designed for pleasure and productivity. In the case of the Getty, ancient texts, archaeological research, and extensive travel revealed the style and content of its four gardens. They were planted with historically accurate perennials, herbs, shrubs, and trees that would have grown in Herculaneum, an effort made easier by some climatic similarities between the Bay of Naples in Campania, Italy, and the Southern California coast.

Reopened in January 2006 after a nine-year hiatus, the villa and its gardens have been revamped and restored. Prior to the renovation, visitors drove on site and parked under the villa itself, emerging directly into the building. They could view the gardens and antiquities but were unable to gain a perspective on the villa, which is tucked into a coastal canyon, or to fully admire the Pacific Ocean view. An extensive architectural addition by Machado & Silvetti achieves several goals, including improving traffic flow and parking and opening up the views to the coast. The villa itself was altered to admit additional light. Now truly a museum complex, the new buildings offer visitor amenities including a café, a bookstore, and performance space. The research and conservation spaces have been enlarged and improved as well.

The gardens had always been loved by the public and well tended by the Getty gardeners. Whenever a $275 million expansion is going on, however, and there is money to spend, it seems likely that what’s not broken might get “fixed” by a new generation anxious to make a splash. The villa might well have emerged unrecognizable from its lengthy surgery.

Amazingly, this did not happen. True, the historical imperative the late J. Paul Getty himself imposed—AD 79—might have prevented a major revamp of the formal gardens, but when the J. Paul Getty Trust began the renovation process in 1994, it took the unusual step of rehiring the original landscape architect—Dennis L. Kurutz—to oversee the restoration of the old gardens and the expansion of the landscape design into the surrounding hillsides.

In fact, Kurutz had been there all along. “He had been working out here for 30 years,” says Matt Randolph, ASLA, who joined Kurutz as project manager during the early stages of the renovation. “The Trust kept Dennis on a monthly stipend. He initiated any design changes made over the years. This was his baby.”

When Kurutz died in 2003 at age 62, Randolph and his partner and wife, Amy Korn, Associate ASLA, became the guardians of the project. At that point, Randolph had worked for Kurutz for a year and a half, overseeing more and more of the job as the older landscape architect became unable to work. Kurutz had worked out the details and specifications, but the vast majority of the implementation fell to the new firm of KornRandolph.

Landscape Architecture met with these two young landscape architects and walked the new villa gardens and grounds. As we moved through the gardens, they took turns pushing their young daughter in a stroller. “Three years ago, we fully took over,” Korn remembers. “At that time, none of the installation was done nearer the villa. Just the olive trees remained.”

Images from that time show the villa building stripped of plantings. Just the compacted earth of a construction site remained around the structure, which had undergone major infrastructural upgrades to electrical, plumbing, and security systems as well as interior changes. Many of the trees had been boxed and stored. During the building renovation, planting was confined to areas on the far perimeter of the site. Kurutz had begun the process of softening the hillside with trees and perennials.

The new entryway takes visitors from the concrete parking structure below to the villa via a path that skirts the edges of the canyon. Planted as a meadow, the roof of the parking structure blends into the landscape. Now in its second growing season, the meadow was green when Landscape Architecture visited in March. Randolph reports that the hydro seed mix was blown onto artificial overstructure soil. At times, the meadow is dominated by native phlox—a sea of white fades and gives way to other color phases. Although the artificial soil keeps the weeds down somewhat because it was sterile, the meadow is not low maintenance. “The Getty Villa’s grounds crew hand weeds it all the time,” he notes. “They all line up and they slowly go down one side and up the other.”

The series of engineered walls surfaced in board-form concrete that creates the new entryway experience is supposed to create the impression that visitors are entering an architectural dig—sites where lumber walls are often used to shore up excavated soil. But the thought of a dig may never occur to many visitors. The concrete, a gritty urban material, seems an unhappy contrast to the extreme refinement of the villa.

Fortunately, Korn and Randolph filled me in on the architectural conceit. Although they have nothing but praise for Machado & Silvetti and their design ideas, I was relieved to learn that vines and other plants will quickly soften the terraced walls. The task of replanting large trees that had been boxed up during renovation, as well as planting approximately 12,000 new trees in sizes ranging from 1-gallon seedlings to 96-foot-tall boxed specimen oaks, fell to them.

“We spent a lot of time dropping in olive and cyprus trees and making sure that the entry sequence was well planted, so that it felt like part of the Mediterranean slope and not a series of walls,” Korn says. “And the sizes of boxed trees we got in were pretty large. It does a good job of creating instant impact.” Most of this work was not done according to plan, they report, but was carried out in the field to get a good sense of space and to frame specific views and hide others.

Working on site with crane operators at their disposal, Randolph and Korn dictated the placement of about 500 trees on the terraces alone. Now, cypress, cedar, sycamore, oak, and olive line the terraced walls in naturalistic groupings. With so many big trees to plant, they quickly adapted their methods to speed the process: measuring the root ball first and digging a hole to the exact depth needed before setting the trees.

The rest of the ledges and slopes are planted with shrubs such as oleander and myrtle, and perennials including sage, spurge, Saint-John’s-wort, periwinkle, and iris. Through the trees, the villa, its herb garden, and a grape arbor appear below, while above, the intensely planted walls with their large trees and heavy underplantings of shrubs very convincingly evoke a Mediterranean hillside.

We made our way down to the villa and its gardens by way of the new amphitheater, as most visitors do. The amphitheater, which seats 450 for performances, replaced an old teahouse and garden. Now, the villa’s guests can take refreshments at a new building that is carved out of the canyon walls and includes a terrace with tables and chairs looking out over the villa. With its broad overhanging roof and concrete walls the new structure looks more prairie style than peristyle, but it doesn’t distract from the villa. Oddly enough, given the new construction, a temporary wheelchair ramp mars the public space that leads to the bookstore.

The herb garden was the first of the formal gardens we entered. Beautiful stone walls remain from the period of the villa’s original construction. As they give way to the new terracing above, it’s clear that the original garden space must have seemed very narrow indeed. Now, however, the terraced walls recede from the viewer, making the narrow canyon broader than its original contours but still buffering the villa from the neighbors.

The herb garden is composed of narrow beds centered on broad gravel paths. A fountain pool holds papyrus and water lilies, and the beds are planted with culinary and medicinal herbs that Romans grew—thyme, oregano, basil, catmint, spearmint, sage, soapwort, and chamomile. They are well marked for the most part, as are the fruit-bearing trees and the three large date palms placed at the southern end of the garden near a pavilion that offers a fine view of the mature trees at the front of the complex. A newly constructed grape arbor made of imported Italian chestnut poles was one of the last things Kurutz worked on before his death.

Korn and Randolph presided over the vast majority of the planting and, in the herb garden as elsewhere on the property, they followed Kurutz’s lead and made changes when necessary. Throughout the site, they avoided dealing with issues of soil compaction by planning ahead. “When we knew they were going to have to tear out soils we asked them to hold the grade down so we could bring in fresh topsoil,” Randolph noted as we walked the herb garden. “There is about 12 to 18 inches of fresh topsoil here.”

We moved into the villa proper and the smallest of the formal gardens. Called the Inner Peristyle, this courtyard garden, essentially a cool, shady retreat, is surrounded by 36 Ionic columns. A narrow pool divides the space as it always has. The plants are mostly shade-loving varieties that, theoretically at least, could have been found in ancient Roman courtyards. Here as elsewhere, Randolph and Korn admit that sometimes substitutions have been made out of necessity. The ivy topiary balls Kurutz designed for the space, for example, are not planted with English ivy (Hedera helix), because the European variety failed to flourish on the California coast. In fact, finding the species they need to maintain the historical accuracy means that every shipment of plants received must be carefully inspected for substitutions that might go unnoticed on jobs where historical accuracy is not key. Randolph estimated they reject 50 percent of every delivery.

Just off the Inner Peristyle lies the East Garden. Here the concrete paths are the same ones installed during the 1970s. They were in good condition and it just didn’t make sense to rip them out since the design itself was not going to vary significantly from the original concept. In another nod to conservation, the laurel trees on view here also date from the original plantings. Clipped boxwood and foxglove line the space, which is centered on a pool filled with water lilies. Rosemary hedges provide a contrast with the more formal boxwood while accent plants, including larkspur, Madonna lily, and seasonal bulbs, loosen it up a bit.

A tall bronze gate at the southern end leads visitors into the last of the gardens. The Outer Peristyle is considered the main garden space. A long narrow pool in the center is edged with iris and yarrow. The ivy topiaries are also used here, and the wire armature is completely covered with green. Randolph says the wire supports guide the gardeners as they trim the plants, as much as anything else—a little tip he picked up from Kurutz. He also reveals that not everyone was a fan of the ivy balls. Marion True, the longtime conservator of the villa who resigned after being accused of purchasing illegal antiquities for the Getty, initially pulled them out just as quickly as they were installed.

However, the topiaries provide just a tad of whimsy in an otherwise extremely formal garden. Constructed on a strict north–south axis with a center pool and lined with Grecian laurels that echo precisely the rhythm of the peristyle columns, this is a very tightly controlled space despite its gravel paths. Container-planted pomegranates at one end carefully balance a similar planting of fan palms on the other end. Damask roses proved more California hardy than the ancient gallica rose initially proposed for the area and so more of the former are to be found here. A consistent ground cover of sweet violet and the use of less formal plants like chamomile, lavender, sage, rosemary, and thyme keep it from looking too much like a Hollywood movie set.

Avoiding excessive drama is key, especially in this garden decked out in sculpture, including replicas of statues discovered at the real Villa dei Papiri and a 1,000-by-13-foot trompe l’oeil mural on the north side. According to Getty Villa literature, the statues have been meticulously placed “in their ancient findspots” and the decorated walls are an “aspect of the Getty Villa that is most characteristically Roman.” Even so, this garden could easily verge on camp if the planting palette was designed in modern Technicolor instead of carefully controlled for historic accuracy.

Unlike its companion museum 12 miles away, the villa’s gardens celebrate continuity and restraint. These ideas permeate the time-capsule design idea, despite the high-tech soil mixes and overstructure planting that make it all possible. And the remarkable level of design continuity flows from Kurutz’s 30 years at the villa down to Korn and Randolph’s work there today. Significantly, the Getty’s current generation of landscape architects did not emerge from a competition or worldwide search for somebody new. Rather they inherited the project from their mentor in the old-fashioned way. And, like their benefactor Kurutz, Korn and Randolph make refinements to the project and hopefully will continue to watch this landscape with a careful eye for the next several decades.

Susan Hines, a freelance writer, is editor at large for Landscape Architecture.

PROJECT CREDITS Landscape architect: Dennis L. Kurutz Associates, Pasadena, California; Korn Randolph, Pasadena, California (Amy Korn, Associate ASLA, Matt Randolph, ASLA, principals). Architect: Machado & Silvetti Associates, Boston. Landscape installation: Valley Crest, Calabasas, California.

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