Gardens at the Getty

After the very enjoyable visit to the Getty Villa, we drove to Santa Monica where we had reservations at the Ambrose Hotel. In the summer of 2008, The Ambrose was the first hotel in the nation to receive the United States Green Building Council’s LEED Silver Certification, so we had to stay there (and yes, they reserved us a spot in the underground garage where we could plug in the car). The hotel was not only green (none of that odd smell of desinfectant and mold I associate with hotels) but also very beautiful, with Asian inspired furniture and a tranquil little garden out front. Our room had a large balcony with some attractively planted containers and a seating area; unfortunately, a cold front had arrived and the temperature was in the low 50s so we stayed inside.

After a memorable dinner and a good night's sleep, we set out early for the Getty. From the parking structure, we took the little tram, watched the introductory movie, and stepped outside -- to be immediately stopped in our tracks by the sight of the San Bernardino Mountains covered in snow. Because of the recent rain and wind, the air was clear and fresh (very fresh) and the views were great. We went inside rather quickly and enjoyed a tour of the highlights, then looked at some of the exhibits in more detail. By 2:30, we decided it had warmed up enough to dare a tour of the gardens.

Our wonderful docent first talked about the plantings at the different levels of the Getty. With the exception of the central garden, all other plants are in containers. Even large trees sit in 48 inch pots supported from below. Similar to the Getty Villa garden, much emphasis is on symmetry and rectangular shapes.

The central garden, created by renowned artist Robert Irwin, lies at the heart of the Getty Center. The 134,000-square-foot design features a natural ravine and tree-lined walkway that leads the visitor through an extraordinary experience of sights, sounds, and scents. Our docent emphasized that Robert Irwin was not knowledgeable about plants when he started designing the garden. But he knew that he wanted to delight all senses as a visitor wandered through the garden.

The zig-zag walkway crosses a small waterway multiple times. Each time the visitor turns, a new vista opens up. At the same time, the sound of the water changes, whispering as you cross one bridge, laughing at the next, and gushing a little further on. The material of the walkway also changes from decomposed granite path to wooden bridge and back again, giving visitors a different tactile sensation and also a different sound of the steps.

The path starts with some large rocks, carefully carved, and is then bordered by medium-sized and smaller rocks until the final part of the waterway is edged with stacked 1-inch stones and the path merges into a plaza.

The plants were chosen carefully for effect. Most plants are somewhat drought tolerant and appropriate for the Southern California climate, but it's clear that the plants are considered the paint in the artist's brush. Phormium, grasses, and succulent were frequent choices. The docent told us we were lucky to be able to really see the bones of the garden, many plants were dormant or had at least lost their leaves.

As with the Getty Villa garden, symmetry was an important theme. Look at the London Plane trees above, each aligned with the next. I grudgingly admired this presentation of plants -- with the complicated sun and shade situation in my garden, I'm happy if 3 plants I hope to group look somewhat similar after a few years. Biodiversity is very much a secondary consideration, the garden has possibly half as many species as my garden, in at least 20 times the space. I also wonder whether it's humanly possible to hand-weed the garden to the perfection I saw, or whether roundup and other poisonous substances appear after the gates are closed and the visitors gone.

No matter, it is a stunning garden, an inspiration and a joy, and I loved the variety of shapes can only imagine the scents and colors I might see in the spring.

The finishing touch at the bottom of the zig-zag path is a labyrinth made from azelea set in water.  It's an amazing sight, and must be beautiful in spring. Still, even now, the green of the bushes and the red of the branches harmonize beautifully.

Some of the azeleas have already started blooming. Looking back from the other side of the labyrinth pond the visitor can take in the zig-zag path with the plaza at the bottom and the Bougainvilla sculptures, which had just been pruned.

We ended up spending 6 hours at the Getty. There was so much to see, and even when we thought we were done we decided we had to have a quick glance a the photography exhibit. Then we returned to our comfortable room at the Ambrose, had a nice little dinner, and rested well before heading out fairly early the next day. We very much regretted not to visit the Huntington Library and Gardens and the Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden. But it seemed prudent to be to the North of Pasadena on the morning of the Rose Parade, with up to a million football fans competing for a spot on the freeway, we did expect delays would have been likely. On December 31, however, the drive on I5 through the Central Valley was fast if a bit boring, and we got home in time to get some groceries and welcome the New Year with a full fridge and memories of a delightful trip.


I'm impressed by the boldness of this garden - matches the mountains!

Maybe variety has to be sacrificed for the sake of drama but when you consider the amount of life supported by even one bush, there must be an awful lot going on unseen. (Providing your anxieties about how they do the weeding etc. turn out to be unfounded.)

I've not seen anything like these gardens and am impressed and uplifted by this brief glimpse so it is, for me, a specially interesting post.

Christine said…
What a good reminder that a great garden engages all the senses. Thanks for sharing!
I love the rebar things at the Getty garden... I was so excited when I found a mini-version a few years ago at Smith and Hawken.
That's a great way to end up a year. LA in the winter, in the days after a storm, can be a stunning sight with brilliant lighting. And to see the Getty Gardens in that light--It doesn't get much better!

Nice to see your take on the Central Garden and it's different tactile layers. Any real gardener visiting the place--like you!--definitely stares at the effects and asks the question: But who maintains this, and how? I did see a medium-sized crew of people working on weeding when I was there last. And what really thrilled me was the sight of one single weed. That made me feel so much better for some reason.