Bringing Design to the Getty

The head of Getty’s new Department of Architecture and Design talks about the institute’s extensive collection, its future, and unrealized Southern California design.

The Getty Institute in Los Angeles is well known for its photography and ancient art collections, but its architecture-related holdings are equally impressive. Scholars and enthusiasts have access to the Julius Shulman Archive and the Bauhaus Papers as well as the archives of Le Corbusier documenter Lucien Herve and Frank Lloyd Wright documenter Edmund Teske. Southern Californian architecture is well-represented with the archives of Ray Kappe, Pierre Koenig, and John Lautner.

All of these will form the basis of the recently announced Department of Architecture and Design, to be led by former head of Special Collections, Wim de Wit. The courtly de Wit has been with the institute since 1993 but originally hails from the Netherlands, where he trained as an architectural historian. After a graduate thesis on the Amsterdam School, a group of Dutch architects active between 1915-1930 who created public housing with sculptural lines, he went on to curate shows on the group in the Netherlands and at the Cooper-Hewitt. His last show at the Getty was 2008’s “Lessons from Bernard Rudofsky”, focusing on materials from the influential architecture thinker’s papers.

With a critical mass of architectural collections, the new department promises to create a forum for research and discussion as well as putting more of the institute’s holdings on display to the public.

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You’re not in L.A. right now…where are you?
I’m in Washington, D.C. on sabbatical through through Dec 31. I’ve been catching up with a lot of reading about California architecture, including things that have come out recently that I haven’t been able to concentrate on. I’m also going through architecture journals. I started around 1940 with Architectural Record and Pencil Point, looking at what they publish about California and looking at the ads, because so much is in the ads.

I hear you’re working on a Pierre Koenig project?
Yes, he did a project with his USC students and a tribe of Native Americans near Lake Havasu. It would have been a modern reservation of steel and glass if it was realized, but it’s also much broader in that it relates to tourism and water recreation. In the late ‘60s and ‘70s, Native Americans saw an opportunity to finally get a purpose for their tribe where they were, but then found that they didn’t really own the shoreline around Lake Havasu so the houses were never built.

Are you finding much documentation of the project?
The National Archives have materials, and the Library of Congress, but nobody really knows about this at all. I talked to the widow of Pierre Koenig, he worked on it for five or six years, but I think everybody forgot about it.

Koenig and his students did all kinds of sun studies and wind studies so that houses of glass and steel in the Mojave desert would function. There would be big overhangs so the sun would not really come into the houses, but in the winters the sun would be low enough to warm it, and all houses were directed to catch as much wind as possible. It will hopefully result in an essay and I want to create a Pierre Koenig exhibition in a few years.

Your assistant curator, Christopher Alexander, is an artist and an urban planner—do your different backgrounds inform your exhibitions?
As a historian, my work has always been in the 20th Century. I started my work on a group active between the two World Wars, now I’ve moved a little bit further into the 20th Century. But [Alexander] as an architect can really bring in a lot of attention to what’s going on right now, he speaks the language of what’s happening now. Together we are, if I may so myself, an ideal combination!

And both of you now focus largely on California design?
When I started to work at the Getty, it mostly looked at European architects and just a little bit at Americans architects in general. Since the arrival of the Shulman archives four years ago, people started to realize that we were really serious about architecture. The archives were a huge commitment—lots of cataloging, over 250,000 objects! That’s when the focus changed to California—Koenig, Lautner, Kappe, Frank Israel—that’s when we acquired all of these.

How does the Getty actually acquire new collections?
Sometimes the person who owns the collection comes directly to us, sometimes there’s a dealer, and sometimes I know there’s something and I personally go to the person and say, ‘Have you ever thought about selling your archives?’ But I would prefer not to talk about it. That’s the sort of thing where the person who has donated would not like to hear about it in a paper!

We acquired all the drawings of Danny Liebeskind because Kurt Forster knew Liebeskind and was able to get the early archives to come to us. There are lots of unrealized projects and very interesting sketchbooks where you can follow his early thinking.

Do you plan to collaborate much with the other institutions in town?
The Lautner symposium we did in association with the Hammer Museum, and we will do more. Hopefully we will not be the kind of people who just want to tell the world how to do it – we will work with the conservancy and with the archictecture schools in the area.

What do you have in the works?
We have to work far in advance, so from 2013 to 2014, we are looking at having a very big exhibition about California architecture from 1940 to 1990.

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