Occupying a similar position that the Parthenon does in the hills above Athens, the Getty Center, which opened Dec.16 after eight years of construction, is carved into the side of the Santa Monica Mountains, looming high above Los Angeles in a series of Richard Meier-designed marble-and-glass modernistic buildings. Overlooking the city and the ocean, it’s about as dramatic a setting as a museum can ask for. It is also an impossible-to-get-to setting.
Since there are only 1,200 parking places for visitors, you have to make a “parking reservation”; the parking garage is booked through June. The fax that comes from the Getty confirming parking places-which suggests a three-hour period within which they’d like you to arrive-makes it sound easy: From West Los Angeles, take the San Diego Freeway-the same freeway on which O.J. Simpson made his famous attempted getaway-north toward the San Fernando Valley. Get off at the newly created Getty Center Drive exit.
Once you are off the freeway, a battle in itself, the Getty Center has created a major traffic snarl of its own. It took 45 minutes to get to the Getty Center from West Hollywood on a recent Friday evening, and just about the same amount of time to get from the exit ramp to the first of five handsome buildings that house the museum’s impressive collection. Cars traveled at an ant’s pace down Sepulveda Boulevard for a half a mile to the entrance of the parking garage for the center, which is located underneath the freeway. There, they were locked in the kind of traffic that has been known to cause some Los Angelenos to pull out a gun and shoot the guy in the Acura next to them.
At the actual entrance to the parking garage, it became clear why there had been such a delay. The Getty Center is a beautiful place with beautiful things, but it is hard to imagine the kind of thinking that went into the design of the parking garage entrance. For there was a circular driveway that must have been smaller than Aaron Spelling’s driveway. Maybe Richard Meier, the architect of the complex, who is best known for designing Bauhaus-inspired glass boxes on the dunes of the Hamptons, got his plans mixed up for two different projects. The entrance to what the founders hope will be one of the world’s great museums seemed to have been designed for maximum effect on those starry nights when a few long black cars are dropping off their passengers.
On this particular Friday night, there was a great deal of pandemonium, with cabs and cars trying to squeeze around the drive as attendants in orange jackets yelled for them to move in closer. Oh, for one of those unemployed actors that come to greet you in front of fancy L.A. eateries to take the burden of 5,000 pounds of Japanese steel away. But, no, the cars slowly inched past the gate, where the attendant did not check names off a list of people who had reserved a parking place or collect the $5 that the sign had said each car would have to pay. This was not shocking, considering that the Getty, which has a $4 billion endowment, does not charge admission.
The fax from the Getty with the confirmation of the parking place said to park in P1 and go to the elevator. The only available spaces were in P3, three floors down. The elevator takes you back up to ground level to the loading area for the tram. Yes, the tram. After all of that, we were still at least 15 minutes away from the museum, huddled in a group at the base of a steep hill that leads to the complex. Mr. Meier told Los Angeles Magazine that the arrangements for parking had been left up to the museum and were not imposed on the museum by land-use agreements with the City of Los Angeles. The next time Mr. Meier designs a major museum, it might be wise for him to consult the local authorities and look more closely into the traffic patterns in that city. After considering using buses and moving sidewalks, he came up with the idea to use the tram.
“As a side effect,” he told the magazine, “it’s kind of a decompression period, where you get out of your car, ride the tram, see the city open up in front of you and arrive on top.” You certainly need a decompression period after the traffic snarl that the parking garage entrance has created, but is waiting outside on a cold night for a tram what is called for?
Taking a tram up to the museum was reminiscent of Disneyland, an observation that was shared by a number of those standing waiting for the next tram-the same people from the exit ramp, without, of course, their cars. Stripped of their Lexuses and Mercedeses, they seemed like nice people, dressed like Angelenos in that dressy casual look that includes sweaters and sports coats on the men and shawls on the women, it being a cool night. It is so rare an experience in Los Angeles to share adversity as a group that people actually began to talk, as if they were in a more social city, and to feel a little better about the prospect of finally arriving at the museum. Eventually, you make it.
Some people are carpooling-taking buses from parking lots in another part of Los Angeles to the museum. But the buses have to get through the same traffic to the trams that our car did. There is a small executive parking lot with a separate entrance, but there is no V.I.P. entrance; buses are instructed to unload at the circular driveway with everyone else who is not parking. Enterprising people have been parking in the nearby neighborhood of million-dollar homes and walking to the museum. But their scheme has been foiled by the Los Angeles Police Department, which has changed parking regulations in the neighborhood and begun to issue tickets.
Lori Starr, the Getty’s director of public relations, said that the Getty no longer allows people to walk on to the site. Acknowledging that there has been more traffic than the museum anticipated, particularly during the holidays, Ms. Starr added that the Getty is studying the problem.
“You know,” she said, “it is the beginning of something. There is a lot to be learned about how people come to the Getty Center. The ways in which they are coming now … have resulted in crowds that need to wait on line to come onto the site.”