Getty Villa now mixes old with new

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File: Getty Villa

Architect Jorge Silvetti of Machado and Silvetti Associates, which was assigned the task of renovating the Getty Villa, explained that many architects would have treated the renovation of the place “aggressively” and “stamped” their signature on it. But Silvetti and his partner felt “no need to do this,” but saw a chance to “improve the qualities” of the famed villa.

By Juliet Schoen / Staff Writer

When I visited the Getty Villa soon after it opened in 1974, I was surprised by the appearance of this “replica” of a Roman house buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. It seemed incongruous to arrive by automobile and park in a modern garage. The building was spanking new, with paintings along the walls of the peristyle and statues with arms and noses. I had expected to see a ruin.

It did not take long before I fell in love with the place and thoroughly enjoyed every subsequent visit. I began to understand and appreciate the fact that the building and grounds represented the Villa Papiri in its prime. Here, in Pacific Palisades, one could find the quiet and serenity of a less hectic time.

The building with its museum was commissioned by J. Paul Getty to display his excellent and extensive collection of antiquities. The museum also had to house his paintings, tapestries, antique furniture, glass, old manuscripts, photographs, etc.

When the Getty Center in Brentwood opened in 1997, the Getty Villa closed for renovations. Everything that was not Etruscan, Greek or Roman was moved to the new facility. Now, after four years of disputes and eight years of construction, the villa will be opening to the public on Jan. 28 with a new look, combining old and new.

The museum itself has been enhanced and more space has been made available for the collection of more than 1,200 antiquities. However, new facilities have been added, which might dismay purists and please others.

On a two and a half hour press tour conducted by architect Jorge Silvetti, of Machado and Silvetti Associates, Boston, the many changes that have been made were covered. In order to get an overview of the project, the press group started at the point where visitors will arrive after parking in the new hillside garage.

Silvetti explained that visitors will no longer use an elevator in front of the legendary outer peristyle garden, but would enter through the side of the building. This, he said, was the “proper” way that the Romans entered the home. The architect explained that the former way of entering the Villa deposited visitors at one of the ultimate parts of the museum and left “no experience of the site itself.”

From the garage, Silvetti led the group through the Entry Pavilion, composed of large retaining walls built of board- formed concrete and decorative aggregate mixes, capped with a translucent onyx. Many interesting materials were used for the walls, pathways and staircases throughout the place, including a darker version of the travertine used at the Getty Center. Silvetti explained that they used “earthy” materials, incorporating wood, bronze, concrete and more, and that the materials combined with the different levels of the villa from the Entry Pavilion up to the ocean view area were designed to give the “image of geology and archeology.” Visitors could get the feeling that they were at an excavation site.

Because the elevators were not yet running, several flights of stairs had to be climbed to where Silvetti said, visitors could “reorient” themselves, with an ocean view from under a grape arbor.

Up high, the popular herb garden could be seen, still featuring plants that were used in Roman households for cooking and medicinal purposes.

Silvetti indicated that the new areas would look better when a patina sets in and the plants and trees have had a chance to grow.

New, in addition to the Entry Pavilion, are a 450-seat outdoor theater and a 250-seat auditorium for performances relating to the antiquities. When asked what shows will be offered, Silvetti playfully answered, “Hello, Dolly.” There will be staged plays, music performances, readings, lectures and screenings. An education court has been set aside for school children and teachers in the lowest “stratum” of the overall site, off one side of the museum.

Also impressive was the new dining facility with both indoor and outdoor seating. An upstairs founders’ room, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows allowing an ocean view, will be available for various functions.

In the museum’s entryway, new window openings and a retractable skylight allow daylight in the atrium during operating hours.

The building has been upgraded to comply with safety standards for the protection of the building and its valuable objects. In the first gallery, Karol Wight, acting curator of antiquities, explained that the installations were based on themes rather than chronology. This room was devoted to references to the god Dionysos. Another was devoted to various gods and goddesses. The famous statue of Herakles still has its own nook, but the dome has been closed and a bronze chandelier provides specific lighting for the objects.

All in all, there will be 23 permanent galleries and five additional rooms for changing exhibitions.

Each gallery boasts a different wall color (the “most striking change” Silvetti said), deemed appropriate for its contents. The walls in the Herakles room were painted a deep mustard color, which coordinated perfectly with what Silvetti called the “most beautiful” floor in the country.The tiled geometrical pattern of triangles in a circular form is an amazing work.

Now that the objects on the upper floor have been shipped to Brentwood, 58 windows have been opened, bathing the rooms with natural light. “Antiquities benefit greatly from natural light,” Silvetti explained.

An elegant new staircase links the two floors.

The planned grand finale to a visitor’s tour will be the beautiful outdoor peristyle, with its 225-foot pool. It has been “freshened up” Silvetti said, with no major changes. The bronze sculptures and replicas of statues have been repositioned so they stand where they were found in the Herculaneum dig.

Silvetti again stressed the importance of color in the Villa dei Papiri. “The columns were not white. They were painted.”

Although there was still work to be done, all will be in readiness for the Jan. 28 opening. The villa will be open Thursday through Sunday, closed for maintenance on Tuesdays and used for private events on Wednesdays. Admission is free for visitors but automobiles must pay $7. Tickets will be required for each individual and these can be obtained online at www.getty.edu or by calling 310.440.7300. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and specific times will be given.

Despite the increase in automobile capacity, the ticketing procedure is expected to keep crowds down and allow this new version of the villa to serve as a delightful addition to the cultural life of the Southland.