The Los Angeles Times

November 6, 2005, The Los Angeles Times

A Villa in Their Vernacular

The Getty posed a unique challenge for its renovation team, who chose to indulge beauty and harmony over postmodern pique.

NEW YORK – When the J. Paul Getty Trust hired Richard Meier to design its hilltop complex in Brentwood, it could rest assured about the architectural style of what it was commissioning since all Meier’s modernist creations have a consistent rigor. But when the Getty chose Machado and Silvetti Associates to refurbish and expand its Villa in Malibu, it was less clear what the outcome might be.

In contrast to Meier, Machado and Silvetti have no readily identifiable design theme. Led by Rodolfo Machado and Jorge Silvetti, Argentine-born academics who first gained prominence as postmodern theorists in the 1980s, the Boston-based firm has a reputation for tasteful refinement, a keen sense of texture, and the ability to remain mindful of tradition while producing forms that are remarkably fresh.

The $275-million Getty Villa project stands as Machado and Silvetti’s most significant design, centering on the 64-acre property just above Pacific Coast Highway where oil billionaire J. Paul Getty built a loose replica of a Roman country house. The mock villa by the architecture firm Langdon & Wilson was dismissed by some critics as a gaudy concoction when it opened to the public in 1974.

“This folly of Getty, how do you take that building?” asks Silvetti, the partner responsible for the Villa’s redesign. “We could have taken it with irony; we could have taken it with aggression. A lot of architect friends of ours recommended both. We took it very seriously, and I think we made it a better building. We made our own architecture, which is quite distinct, and tried to bring a certain harmony into a rather disparate set of buildings.”

Due to reopen Jan. 28, the Villa will house Getty’s collection of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities. The tycoon’s 1920s Spanish Colonial-style Ranch House has been refurbished as curatorial offices and an educational center. Silvetti is the lead designer, but he and Machado insist that all their projects are collaborative efforts. Born less than two months apart, the 63-year-old, courtly, erudite duo dressed virtually alike for a recent joint interview in New York, with similar black blazers and trousers, identical black blucher lace-ups and matching crimson socks.

“We like it rich,” purrs Machado in lightly accented English, to which Silvetti injects “visually rich for sure. We are not minimalists. I don’t understand minimalism in architecture.” Compared to the pure lines of Meier’s Getty Center, Machado and Silvetti’s reworked Villa verges on sumptuous. Even if the most prevalent materials are concrete and stone, these are arranged with an expert eye for subtle detail and texture. Terrazzo floor patterns inspired by antiquity, walls in a historically based colorful palette, simple yet artfully curved stair banisters and bronze window frames heighten the visual appeal.

It would be hard to read the changes they have made to the opulent, original Villa as adding unnecessary fuss, but nonetheless, Silvetti continues, “Even though the effect may be decorative for some, it is deeply rational and very, very precise conceptually.” In some places, they used the same honey-colored travertine stone that Meier deployed at the Getty Center. “It has become an icon of the Getty, and they are selling pieces as souvenirs. We are using it in many different ways,” Silvetti says. “But we did want to make the comment that the projects are by nature complementary.”

Meier’s Getty Center looms citadel-like at the top of a hill; the Villa is at the bottom of a ravine. Modeled after the Villa dei Papiri, which was covered in the AD 79 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and later excavated at Herculaneum, the 1974 replica was built to house Getty’s collection of antiquities, French furniture and Baroque and Renaissance paintings. To protect these art works, illumination was tightly controlled. “This was a hermetic building in spite of having been inspired by a Roman garden villa,” says Silvetti. Now that the more light-sensitive pieces have been moved to the Getty Center, Machado and Silvetti were free to open up the Villa to daylight, adding skylights and creating some 60 new windows by breaking open the brick walls.

“There was no doubt in anybody’s mind — architects and curators — that this was the way to show antiquities, that this was the way they existed in antiquity,” according to Silvetti. The importance of natural light in exhibiting antiquities became clear to the architects when the Getty sent them on an extensive research tour of major classical sites such as Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as visits to study key displays of antiquities at a reconstructed Pompeian villa by King Ludwig I in Bavaria, the Louvre in Paris, the Museum Island in Berlin, the Glyptothek in Munich, the Thorvaldsen Museum in Copenhagen and the Villa Kerylos on the French Riviera. “This was one of the more heavily researched design projects that’s been built in America,” says Peter Lofgren, a former Machado and Silvetti associate who worked on the Villa.

The architects also sought to augment the evocation of a classical setting at the Villa by creating the feel of an excavated site with multiple levels and a series of new retaining walls in layers of horizontal bands meant to resemble geological strata laid bare. They also added a new entrance, an outdoor amphitheater, a cafe, a bookstore, conservation labs, a scholars’ library and educational facilities. In refurbishing the Villa itself, its entry and circulation patterns, the architects strove to make the experience of the building more historically accurate.

Because of the Villa’s links with antiquity, Machado and Silvetti’s work there has been watched keenly by classicist architects. “I think they do extremely thoughtful work and in the case of the Getty seem to be ingeniously responsive to both improving on yet respecting the original museum,” says Marc Appleton of Santa Monica, who serves on the board of the Institute of Classical Architecture. “They view every challenge as the opportunity to demonstrate again the originality of their vision,” Marion True, the Getty Villa associate director and antiquities curator who resigned in October, is quoted as saying on the firm’s website and in its promotional brochure.

Only a yell away

Co-workers describe the busy Boston office as more an informal studio than a corporate setting despite its 40-member staff; a healthily boisterous place where design matters so much that it’s sometimes squabbled over. For years, the two partners sat at back-to-back tables but now occupy adjacent offices and, as Machado tells it, “yell through the wall.” They live together in a 19th century Back Bay townhouse they renovated themselves, and bring their Doberman, Otto, with them to work.

Partners in their professional as well as personal lives, they formed an architectural practice in 1974 after having met in their native Buenos Aires, where they worked as assistants to the same architecture professor. They came to the United States in the late 1960s — Machado remembers the date, July 26, 1968, citing it as the anniversary of Eva Peron’s 1952 death — and obtained graduate degrees at UC Berkeley.

Before enrolling in architecture school, Silvetti studied music. He speaks wistfully about the road not taken to a performing career, although he remains an amateur pianist. He concluded a 2002 lecture at Harvard with references to his playing of keyboard music by the contemporary composer Gyorgy Ligeti. “The cultural world we grew up in Buenos Aires was very cosmopolitan,” he says. “We probably used the word ‘Derrida’ in America before anybody here knew who he was simply because we had those kinds of connections.”

As teachers, Machado and Silvetti primarily occupied the theoretical realm of academia but began building in earnest in the early 1990s. Silvetti chaired Harvard’s department of architecture from 1995 to 2002 and continues to teach there. Machado is chair of Harvard’s department of urban planning and design. Silvetti’s service as a juror for the Pritzker Architecture Prize from 1996 to 2004 reinforced his status as a power player on the international architectural scene.

Having mastered the art of maneuvering within a university bureaucracy, Machado and Silvetti have taken on many projects for large institutional clients, designing master plans and individual buildings that include dormitories at Princeton and Harvard, an art museum at the University of Utah, and a branch public library in Boston. In New York, they designed an acclaimed small park at the tip of lower Manhattan, with a pair of red brick arches that form an abstracted face gazing out at the Statue of Liberty in the adjacent harbor.

Breaking new ground

There is little if any stylistic repetition in their projects. “I want to believe that we are post-postmodern, post-deconstruction, post all of that,” Silvetti says of the latest work. The firm is working on two museum designs that are on a smaller scale from the Getty but also involve sensitive additions to existing properties. One is in Maine at Bowdoin College’s art museum, a domed neoclassical structure designed by McKim, Mead and White, and the other is on Cape Cod in Massachusetts at the Provincetown Art Assn. and Museum, now housed in a white clapboard former sea captain’s house. Additional commissions have become increasingly far-flung, including an apartment block in Beirut and a large-scale urban complex in Seoul.

Not all of their designs have been well received. Calling their graduate student apartment complex for Harvard “one of the … most deeply hated buildings in Boston,” Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell said it “looks like something a kid would make out of blocks.” Local community groups such as the Harvard Square Defense Fund vilified it, and although they succeeded in lopping six stories off the original 21-floor design, the groups still argue that it’s too tall. “I would be terribly worried if we were accepted and liked by everybody,” responds Machado.

“Taste and beauty are anathema to current theory,” Machado and Silvetti wrote in a 1995 monograph about their work. They see disharmony as overvalued in contemporary architecture and cite beauty as one of their paramount ideals. “Every time the question comes to the fore, you hear, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ which is such a cliché,” Silvetti says today.

“But you are not exempt from the responsibility to try and to really present your view of beauty and how you arrive at it. The input of the client is fundamental, but I do think one has to guide the client into a path of beauty, and then defend it and stand by it. The client has to be brought along.” Judging by their designs for the reinvention of the Getty Villa, Machado and Silvetti are adept at the task.