Guide To The Getty Angel Thompson’s walk through the J. Paul Getty Museum


The fabulous wealth of J. Paul Getty has funded the building of an extraordinary museum to house the Getty collection. Angel Thompson examines its mountain-top site for signs of auspicious Feng Shui

When J Paul Getty bought his first work of art in 1931 for just over a thousand dollars, he cannot have imagined that this was the start of the great Getty art collection.


By 1953 he had amassed a sufficiently large collection to feel that it warranted plans to establish a small museum at the Getty ranch in Malibu. Later he funded, to the tune of US$17 million, a specially built museum modelled on a Roman villa.

The museum’s entrance façade, seen from the tram arrival plaza at the Getty Center.

Getty was a complex mix of wildcat roughness and business savvy. Spectacularly successful at turning the family fortune into ‘real money’, his attitude toward art and collecting was equally complex. He believed in art as an investment and felt that ‘few human activities provide an individual with a greater sense of personal gratification than…a collection of art objects that appeal to him…that have a true and lasting beauty’.


Spending millions on art to please himself, Getty was less generous to his family whose history is filled with tragedy. Married and divorced five times, his 12-year-old son, from his fifth and last marriage, died during brain surgery just three months after the divorce. He was so tight with his money, he had pay phones installed in his house.

He absolutely refused to pay the ransom for his grandson, even after receiving the boy’s bloody ear from kidnappers. At his death in 1976, though he had never visited the Malibu Getty museum (opened in 1974), ignoring the claims of his family, he left an extraordinary US$700 million bequest to them in Getty oil stock.

The fabulously deep pockets of the Getty buyers would help to boost prices on the art market and render counter bids from other museums around the world completely inadequate. By the early 1980s, the Chairman and Trustees of the J Paul Getty Trust were looking for a new site to house the increasing collection of works of art and the associated Getty organisations all in one place.

In 1983 they acquired the Getty Center site, atop a hill in the Sepulveda Pass at the 405 Freeway in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. Over a period of 14 years the new museum took awe-inspiring shape, a gift to the people of Los Angeles with free admission. A short while ago
Angel Thompson went visiting…

The New Getty Center

The envy of all my friends, I visited the Getty during the first week it was open to the public. The entry tram is a delightful feature that carries the devoted to the top of the mountain. Stepping out of the tram, my first look at the new Getty Center took my breath away. What a sight. The exterior plays with light and shadow and the grand proportions are magnificent. The meld of inner and outer with no apparent separation, the flow of energy from entry through each separate building is an inspired concept.

Getty despised modern architecture and copied European temples and churches whenever he could. Just look at the Malibu Getty – for which he demanded that an exact replica of the Villa dei Papiri in Italy be built. Critics called it Pompeii on the Pacific with ironic reference to the town buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted.

The team collected together by the architect for the Getty project, Michael Meier, visited over 22 modern and ancient sites, where sacred architecture had been erected, to gain inspiration. Was their goal to erect a temple in Los Angeles or perhaps a museum masquerading as a temple?

Plan of Getty Museum with pa kua overlaid.


Using the circular tower in the centre of the site as the focus, you can draw lines radiating from it through the main courtyard fountain, through the centre of the Getty Research Institute and along the pathway leading from the Getty Information Institute to the main entrance. These three lines, fully extended, map the site. On the diagram, you can see how the pa kua drops neatly over these lines on the plan.

The precise alignments are no coincidence, and the site was obviously divided up by the architects using an octagon. We fixed the K’an Trigram to face the direction of the entrance in the North, which happily means that both Black Hat Sect and Classical Chinese Compass feng shui alignments agree with each other for this site.

Taking each of the eight sectors in turn:

1 North sector (K’an Trigram), which corresponds to Career, includes the auditorium and the main entrance way with its associated tram terminal.
2 North-east sector (Ken Trigram), which corresponds to Education and Knowledge, neatly includes the Getty Information Institute, J Paul Getty Trust, Getty Conservation Institute, Getty Educational Institute for the Arts and the Getty Grant Program.
3 East sector (Chen Trigram) is representative of Family and Health, and includes absolutely no structures, possibly a significant commentary on Getty family life.
4 South-east sector (Sun Trigram) is the Wealth and Prosperity Direction. Together with…
5 South sector (Li Trigram), which corresponds to Recognition and Fame. Both of the above sectors embrace the totality of the J Paul Getty Museum, a very strong comment on the motives for investing the Getty billions in this project.
6 South-west (K’un Trigram) corresponding to Marriage and Romantic Happiness, this sector includes the beautiful Central Garden with its ch’i accumulating water feature.
7 West sector (Tui Trigram), which corresponds to Children, embraces the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, an obvious reference to ongoing research which will produce.

Getty was a complex mix of wildcat roughness and business savvy

An Auspicious Site?

Good feng shui requires that form follows function – a temple is a temple: a museum is a museum. Throughout the world, both ancient and modern temples have conformed to the idea that a structure must reflect the arrangement of the cosmos. Feng shui includes the study of the relationship between heaven and earth. As we examine the new Getty Center site, let’s see how it compares to classic feng shui and sacred architecture.

Initially sacred monuments were associated with a particular deity or the natural or supernatural powers they represented. Monoliths, like the Great Pyramid at Giza, were aligned by the stars. Others were aligned with the

stars of planets in the sky, like Rameses’ Tomb at Abu Simbel in Egypt where the sun shines directly into the entry on the birthplace of Rameses. Other structures, such as the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, were located in places significant to the gods and some, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing, were geographically oriented. Edifices such as Stonehenge were used as observation points to measure the movements of the planets or heavenly bodies while yet others, such as the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon outside Mexico City, were sited in accordance with planetary motions.

The Getty Center perches on top of its mountain, aligned to the 405 freeway. From its heights both sunrise and sunset must be magnificent moments. However, according to classical feng shui, placing yourself at the top of the mountain only invites problems. Such a site offers no protection, privacy or safety, and the top of a mountain is not only bombarded with the strongest and coldest winds but is the place where lighting is bound to strike. The great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, used to say he liked to place buildings on the ‘eyebrow’ part of the mountain.

A Painful Site?

To build this magnificent museum, with its permanent and changing exhibits, its 300-seat theatre, its many lecture halls, and panoramic views was no small feat. The Getty was built with European stones brought into California from Tuscany, Italy at great expense. Stone set upon stone with no grout to hold them together – interesting in a city that shakes all the time. The inaccessibility of the site must have been a contractors’ nightmare, one that surely haunted the builders of the pyramids. (Exactly how do we lift these stones up the hillside?)

The Getty’s mountain is part of the Santa Monica range separating downtown Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley and offers the museum a 360° uninterrupted view of its surroundings. The museum entry is at the Sepulveda Pass which is the centre of a cross – the North/South arm created by the 405 freeway, and the East/West arm by Sunset Boulevard.

Here symbolism is rich in meaning; the Getty appears to be the focal point of the cross, nailed to the heart of the mountains or ‘sleeping dragons’. Pain and suffering accompany Getty’s plans and dreams – only too true remembering the family’s often tragic history.

Clearly visible from the northbound 405 freeway, are two areas that suffer from being in the direct path of ‘secret arrows’ cast from the outer walls of the Getty Center. Cars literally come to a stop at the two places that pass by the arrows. Brentwood residents living in the shadow of the Getty tried to stop its construction, citing the already congested traffic. Word has it that accidents in the mountain pass near Getty Center Drive have increased tenfold since the earth movers began etching away at the magnificent sleeping dragons that embraced Los Angeles.

The flow of energy from entry through each separate building is an inspired concept

Harmonising Influences

On earth, nature reflects the perfect order and harmony of the cosmos. When buildings (and people) are placed to reflect this heavenly order, all is well. If the reflection is imperfect, anything can happen and the results can be dire.Before there were buildings people believed the world was alive and everything in it was significant. Stars and planets, the earth and its spirits,
as well as the elements of nature were regarded as living entities to be emulated or worshipped.

As nature gave way to civilisation, buildings and monoliths were erected on sacred land in order to pay homage to these deities. Sacred monuments were built using primary geometric shapes and proportions, described by number symbolism. At the Getty you can see that sacred geometry is still a profound part f architecture. Pythagorus spoke of the ‘golden mean’ and a proportion found to repeat in all living things called pi. Pi is expressed in sacred geometry as the fraction 22/7 (22 being the circumference and 7 the diameter).The Getty hillside is at a 22.5 degree angle and the steps up its are terraces are in 22.5inch increments, which are easy to climb, and again repeat the sacred dimension.

The theories behind mathematical mysticism or sacred geometry are that they reveal an order inherent in numbers that creates specific effects on observers, both physical and spiritual. The mathematical mysticism used in constructing the new Getty Center definitely creates a feeling of harmony and calmness.

Five Water Dragons

The buildings form a Metal structure. They are both clad with metal panels and are moulded in typical metal shapes with circular fronts, and domed roofs. The Element Wood is also represented by the many flat roof, plateau shaped buildings.

The alignment of the Getty Center is rather interesting. The monorail and service road for bus transport cuts its way uphill through the mountain travelling in an almost due South direction. Extending this line you pass between two of the major structures, down a ramp, and follow a water feature which flows into the Central Garden. To the right of this alignment is the Getty Research Institute which is semi-circular and faces towards the gardens. On the other side of this is the access to the grand structure of the J Paul Getty Museum which itself is arranged around its own courtyard. The courtyard also has water features which help to concentrate and pool the ch’i.

The sound and movement of five distinct fountains and water features are at the heart of the architecture of the Getty Center. The location and design of each fountain and water feature accentuates an important axis running through the site.

1 The first water feature encountered by visitors is the cascading waterfall alongside the grand stairway connecting the Arrival Plaza to the Museum Entrance Hall. The water flows directly into a long narrow pool, built so shallow as to seem an extension of the Plaza floor. Within that pool, fountain jets shoot streams of water directly upward. The placement of this fountain is in perfect alignment with both fountains in the Museum Courtyard and the centre of the round Museum Entrance Hall.

2 In the Museum Courtyard, 46 jets shoot streams of water from right to left forming perfect arcs over the 120-foot linear basin, situated beside a row of Mexican cypress trees. The eye is directed both to the left edge of the fountain, which is the centre axis of the site, and back along that same elongated line to the centre of the large boulder fountain, whose centre is in perfect alignment with the centre of the Museum’s circular entrance hall, the linear basin’s edge, and the edge of the cascading fountain at the Arrival Plaza.

3 In the tradition of Chinese gardens, the boulder fountain at the South end of the Museum Courtyard is part sculpture, part reflection. The circular pool, with its sculptural boulders and playful water, is meant to contrast with the geometric design of the surrounding architecture, yet is placed not only on the centre line to the Museum but also the axis to the offices in the Research Institute. A calm pool reflects the curvature of the West Pavilion, outside the circular divide that separates it from the splashing waters of the fountains. Travertine blocks, spaced across the water like lily pads, form a floating bridge. With the water’s surface less than half an inch from the edge of each block, one experiences the sensation of walking on water.

4 Tucked between the East and South Pavilions, a smaller boulder fountain rests at floor level, almost an extension of the East Pavilion’s lobby.

5 The final water feature is located West of the Museum entrance, at the top of the Central Garden. It begins with a travertine block, where a constant flow of water rises as if from an eternal spring. The water runs down the front of the block and along a chute, finally emptying into a hidden exit which has been chosen for its exit direction. From below, the water trickles into a magnificent grotto of chiseled travertine. Aligned perfectly with the centre line through the Central Garden, the fountain not only connects the garden to the buildings, but serves as the source of its own stream.

Water, Water Everywhere

The ancients also believed that structure and decoration should follow clear and basic patterns derived from their conception of the elements (in the East the Elements were Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water; in the West they were Earth, Water, Air and Fire), the forms of nature and from the living energies derived from them.

In the Central Garden visitors supposedly encounter an ever-changing work of art filled with the colour, sound and light of nature. Too bad nothing was in bloom when I was there. Artist Robert Irwin’s creation is a strained attempt. Not a labyrinth, not a garden, it is crossed with pointed separations and is as far away from a natural setting as one could imagine.

I would have liked to see a more people-friendly garden, maybe with a sundial as the focal point, with benches and shade trees, more visible still or active water, or even a formal labyrinth. The garden seemed to me to belong on the East coast. A gardener, not an artist, should have designed the garden.

However, I loved the use of water. Tumbling down the main steps, equal in height to the walkways. In front of the West Wing, one could literally walk on water, so clever was the placement of walking stones over the waterway. Some of its charm is now lost because guards now stand in front of the stones to keep people off. Apparently, kids found the walk-way and the splashing just too much fun. Also, potential lawsuits from slipping adults had to be minimised!

Like the original Getty Center in Malibu, parking is limited and reservations are required. Those without cars can take the bus, hire a taxi, ride a bike, or walk into the Getty. By spring 1998, the morning reservations were booked until December 1998. However, there are still plenty of reservations available at the 6:30pm parking slots. This is definitely one of the sites to see when you’re in California so don’t miss it.

Photos © J Paul Getty Trust/Photographers: Scott Frances/Esto/Tom Bonner



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