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A Trip to the New Getty, Part 1: Descending the Spiral


 Water rains through the dome at the top…

Recently I was in Los Angeles, where I had the good fortune to go to the New Getty Museum – and its garden.  A friend of mine who works there, as well as the Art Historian traveling with me, both share my opinion of the garden. So I feel confident (and less Philistine) in saying that the garden outside holds more interest for me than most of the exhibits inside.

Unlike most modern buildings, the Getty manages to be thoroughly contemporary, yet congenial to humans. It invokes a spacious Mediterranean classical feel without ever reproducing ancient architecture: the warm stone, imported from Italy, is an important part of both architectural sensations. Whatever I may feel about the ecological consequences of importing masses of stone from Italy, I can’t deny the aesthetic pleasure.

The garden contines in the same strain. It’s roughly based on a spiral, with water flowing through in the best classical Arabic-garden style. (Also in classical Arabic style is the recirculation of the water, which is pumped from the bottom pool back to the top.)


…to a pool in at the top of the garden…

One of the  most pleasing aspects of the Getty garden may not be visible to everyone: low water use. Though the garden is saturated with the sound and sight of water, its watercourse and pools are recirculated, and create great effect with a fairly small volume. Many of the plants I could identify in the garden thrive on minimal water, a nice design touch for a climate with so little of it.


…planted with papyrus and water lilies.

The visible water is channeled through a fountain, rivulet, and pools that have a feel somewhere between ancient and modern.


The large boulders are in the watercourse, hidden at this point by plants.

The Art Historian (who is also an artist) liked the way the boulders in the stream start out massive, get smaller, and finally go into embedded pebbles laid endwise in Chinese style.


Since the Getty is on a prominent hilltop,  the top of the garden is the place where you get spectacular views of city and ocean, punctuated by the tall wheatshock-shaped structures, as large as spreading trees,  and standing in their stead in this garden. Gardeners in a new and treeless environment might take a hint from these graceful elaborate trellises, which at the Getty are strung with bougainvillea, but might be adapted for any climate. With annual vines, they’d also be a great way to get seasonal shade and a stunning display of flowers or foliage. (Most gardeners would have to scale them down, though; these are two or three stories high.)


You may have noticed the very happily situated hellebores in some of the photos above. Hellebores seem to be stalking me lately, determined to get into my garden. These certainly got my attention: I’m guessing they are plain and variegated Helleborus argutifolius (Corsican hellebore), which fits in with the Mediterranean theme. (Any help with hellebore identification will be gratefully received.)


The hellebores are paired here with black-purple phormium, a satisfying shape and color combination. They are also paired (only in LA) with a variegated crassula.


There are many succulents in this garden, which depends as much on foliage as it does on flowers for its effects.


What’s different is that the succulents are not only grouped with each other, but with nonsucculent plants. This reddish succulent (which I believe is the kind of kalanchoe called paddle plant) is paired with another succulent (which I believe is a hirsute echeveria) which contrasts with the kalanchoe while picking up its reddish tints on the tips and edges of its leaves.


Backing off further, you can see the black phormium and the twig of an unidentified but clearly deciduous shrub, outlining this area.


Pulling back still more reveals the variety of plants which beautifully crowd this bit of garden. (The sun was going in and out of clouds, so this picture is darker.) Every square yard of garden is an artwork in itself, and leads you to explore more as you wend your way down to the dramatic center circle.


Next post: the center of the spiral

{ 8 comments… add one }

  • jodi (bloomingwriter) February 19, 2009, 5:59 pm

    These photos are just spectacular! THis is probably a place I won’t get to visit any time soon, but wow, I feel like I was there from viewing your pictures.

  • Northern Shade February 19, 2009, 8:30 pm

    This looks like a great garden to explore. I like the narrow watercourse, winding its way down the hill. The small bricks of coordinating colours that line it look especially nice. The sound of water in the garden works so well for blocking out city noises, and is so relaxing.

  • Sylvia (England) February 20, 2009, 4:45 am

    Pomona, your words and pictures really help to visulise these gardens. The descriptions of the planting is great for giving us ideas. Thank you.

    I agree that the hellebore in your picture was H argutifolius. I liked the idea of putting them with phormums, I think my new H ‘Silver Dollar’ would look good on the shady side of my dark phormum and in front would be my very early red/orange tulip (just out today). I think this is what makes great garden visits (and blog posts) some good ideas and well as some ‘I wouldn’t do thats’!

    I am looking forward to the second installment. Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Pomona Belvedere February 20, 2009, 3:06 pm

    I’m really glad this post made you feel as if you were there; it’s always nice when I hear I’m achieving the intended effect! I hadn’t considered the sound aspects of running water but of course you’re right, it’s an excellent screen for traffic noise. Even though I can’t plant many of these plants in my garden for reasons of freezing, the new combinations inspire me to open up a little on what I plant together. (Sylvia, thanks for the H. argutifolium confirmation. Your own post is going to be a hellebore identification dictionary for me.)

  • Steve February 21, 2009, 7:54 am

    Good heavens, Pomona, what a sumptuous feast! The new Getty is definitely striking in every way, but your pictures and commentary here add a special individual appeal that makes it deeper and even more exciting.

    Who designed this?

  • Pomona Belvedere February 21, 2009, 2:00 pm

    Robert Irwin, whom I discuss a little in the next post. It is an incredible design. I went to the Getty website where there is a bit more on him, and where I found at least some plant identities: at least one kind of Helleborus argutifolius is ‘Janet Starnes’, and that that black grass is probably not phormium, but black mondo grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’. I’m putting in a link to this part of their site on post two. And many thanks for the kind words. It’s always nice to know if I succeed in my aims.

  • Alice Joyce February 21, 2009, 3:49 pm

    I’ve had a lot of fun exploring the Getty Central Garden, too, and the newly reopened Getty Malibu, too. Thanks for this post! It’s a great update and reminder.

  • Pomona Belvedere February 24, 2009, 1:56 pm

    If I lived nearby, I think I’d go to the Getty Center garden often, to see what they were up to through the seasons. I did zip down to the Getty Villa also, and enjoyed the gardens there, too, so different: I love the fact that they have all contermporaneous plants to match the ancient Roman era. They will be even better when they’re grown in.

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