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Don't Panic!

Charles Jencks discusses revivalism in relation to the Getty Museum and asks if we should still indulge in historical simulation

Originally published in AR February 1978, this piece was republished online in December 2011

The art world is, apparently, as upset as the architectural fraternity. The new Getty Museum, which opened in Malibu a short while ago, will soon, it is hinted, have something like six million disposable art dollars to spend each year dwarfing all other museums of the world by, at least, a factor of three. What to do with this money is the major problem, as any intensive buying will upset the delicate art market and create shortfalls in things like original statues by Lysippus.

Talking with the director Stephen Garrett (a British architect) about this problem and doing some quick arithmetic, I suggested that the Getty trustees should spend the money on erecting new replica museums around the world - especially in Pompeii and Herculaneum from which this one in Malibu is recently departed. It cost circa $12 million, so you could have a New Repro Villa Papyri every two years (and with parking underneath, and chlorine in the pools).

The virtue of the place, whatever the vices, is as a simulation of first century life in a rich patrician’s villa and what could be more appropriate and needed now for exhibiting excavated artefacts? It would add a new and appropriate dimension to tourism (imagine a reconstructed Mycenae or King Arthur’s Castle), it would keep the art world happy and solve the vexing question of all those free-floating petro-dollars.

However this difficult problem turns out, there are other questions which exercise architects. Should a building today be a straight revivalist version of a previous building? Most architects and critics answered negatively, especially when confronted with this piece of Roman revival-located on the edge of Los Angeles. Some used an old organic analogy arguing that architectural languages live and die and that this ancient one they believed, or rather hoped, was moribund.

AR 1978 February - Don't Panic! (Page 1)

AR 1978 February - Don’t Panic! (Page 1)

Part of this wishful thinking was no doubt directed against the straight revivalism going on in American cities and the work of Henry Hope Read, John Blatteau, or in Britain Quinlan Terry. So the Getty Museum was damned as ‘disgusting’, ‘downright outrageous’, ‘too learned’, ‘frequently lacking in basic architectural design judgement’, ‘fraudulent’, ‘recreated by inappropriate technologies’ and of course too expensive.

These predictable outcries have been rebutted by David Gebhardt, the incisive historian from Southern California, who, pointing out its obvious functional appropriateness, and popularity, thinks it one of the most important buildings of the last 10 years:

“As a functioning object, the Getty Museum appears to work as well as or even better-than - most recently built museums … [the designers] have evinced a far more sympathetic response to the needs of a popular audience than that expressed in any of the recently completed ” modern” image buildings which have been constructed in the US”

Reyner Banham, known for his sometime celebration of such pop re-creations, condemns the whole thing for its lifeless air, the ‘bureaucratic precision’ in detailing: ‘The erudition and workmanship are as impeccable, and absolutely deathly, as this kind of pluperfect reconstruction must always be … no blood was spilled here, nor sperm, nor wine, nor other vital juice’.

AR 1978 February - Don't Panic! (Page 2-3)

AR 1978 February - Don’t Panic! (Page 2-3)

Basically then it isn’t really Roman enough in its feeling and creation, the old charge of modernists that traditionalists tend in our century to give birth to the corpse. Charles Moore, otherwise sympathetic to this sort of thing, has also faulted it for lack of spatial invention.

My own impressions of this over-praised/over condemned villa are somewhat different. It is exciting in its setting, certainly delightful to experience as a good replica (like Sir Arthur Evans’ reconstructions at Knossos), very sympathetic to the antiquities displayed and even a challenge culturally, for it is saying that our time can indulge, like no other, in fairly accurate historical simulation.

Through our reproduction techniques (xerox, film, synthetic materials) and our specialised archaeologies (in this case archaeological and landscape specialists), with our high technologies of air-conditioning and temperature control and our structural capabilities (of putting the whole thing over a parking garage), we can do what nineteenth-century revivalists couldn’t do.

We can reproduce fragmented experiences of different cultures and, since all the media have been doing this for 15 years, our sensibility has been modified. Thanks to colour magazines, travel and Kodak, everyman has a well-stocked musée imaginaire and is a potential eclectic. At least he is exposed to a plurality of other cultures and he can make choices and discriminations from this wide corpus, where previous cultures were stuck with what they’d inherited.

Thus I would argue that the Getty Museum is a passable, if unintended example of Post-Modern building, commendable for its pluralism and opening of choice but neither brilliant nor especially moribund. Perhaps the reason it has aroused a disproportionate amount of praise and blame is that it has raised, at the right time, the question of what architecture should be in the ’70s, but it didn’t give the answers (so all sides were agitated).

Charles Jencks has been writing for The Architectural Review for half a century as critic, contributor and connoisseur of aesthetics and architecture. Read his letter published in the December edition of AR on the ultimate fate of postmodernism.

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