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Getty Villa works on many layers

Archeology-dig metaphor brings unity to renovation

LOS ANGELES -- Wonderful buildings are rare. Too many things can go wrong. Like a choir of angels, everyone involved has to sing in harmony -- the architect, the owner, the engineers and other consultants, the builders, the neighbors, and the people who furnish, manage, and occupy the place.

So it's a pleasure to report that the Getty Villa in Malibu, which was designed by Boston architects and opened in January, is a wonderful building.

What's now being called the Getty Villa is a renovation of the original Getty Museum, which was built in 1974 by billionaire oilman J. Paul Getty to display his personal art collection. But this is far more than a renovation. The old Villa has been half surrounded by new additions. And it's the way the new and the old are combined that makes this place superb.

One bit of history: You shouldn't confuse the Getty Villa with the Getty Center. Designed by noted architect Richard Meier, the Getty Center, which opened in 1997, is a sprawling complex of museums and other functions atop a high hill in another part of the Los Angeles area.

The Getty Center was built because the old Villa had become too small for the collection and other activities. Everything was moved to the new center, except the collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. That collection is what remains here in the Villa.

There are so many ways the architects could have blown this one. Getty's original Villa was a clone of the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum, a 2,000-year-old Roman ruin the billionaire happened to like. Reconstructed at the bottom of a canyon near the Pacific Ocean, it was bizarre at best. It was handsome, but it was so phony in this place and time that it looked less like an actual building than a stagy image in, say, a liquor advertisement.

Faced with the problem of adding new buildings to this odd object, the architects could have erected a few more Roman imitations. The result would have been an absurd theme park. Or they could have ignored the original entirely, and surrounded it with contemporary steel and glass. That would have been a snub to the Villa, making it look even more forlorn.

The architects were the firm of Machado and Silvetti, with offices in Boston's South End. They invented a brilliant way to pull new and old into one complex. As they began to solve the practical problems -- where to put the parking garage, where to bring visitors in, where to put the new restaurant, how to handle the handicapped, where to site the new offices and conservation labs and indoor theater and outdoor amphitheater -- they realized that in this narrow Malibu canyon, they would have to push the new buildings up against the canyon walls to make room for them.

The new construction, in other words, could seem to grow naturally out of the rock canyon walls. The architects realized they'd unintentionally created a metaphor. They'd invented a false narrative: that the Villa had always been here and had only recently been discovered at the bottom of an archeological dig. The canyon was the dig site, and the new buildings were either its excavated walls or stood atop them.

Once the metaphor had dawned on them, Machado and Silvetti articulated it subtly, finishing the new canyon walls with striations of varying materials -- different textures of concrete, different kinds of stone -- like the different layers of rock or soil you'd find in a real archeological dig. It's a subtle idea, but a powerful one, and whether you're conscious of it or not, it succeeds in making one coherent place out of a loose variety of buildings.

At the heart of everything is a new outdoor theater, an imitation of the famous amphitheaters of Greece and Rome. It directly faces the entry porch of the old Villa. Between them a small plaza doubles as the stage for the theater. The Villa façade, thus, can become a backdrop for performances of classic Greek and Roman plays.

Nothing could be less ''correct" than to site a public outdoor theater and a private villa face-to-face. It certainly never happened in the ancient world. Here, though, the juxtaposition creates an unforgettable center of gravity for the whole complex. Visitors use the amphitheater for everything: as a huge staircase and for resting, sunbathing, and picnicking, or in the case of kids, running up and down.

Another wise move is the entry sequence. Jorge Silvetti, who was partner in charge of the job, was afraid that if the entry path for visitors were to be at the same elevation as the ground floor of the Villa, the Villa would always dominate, and the new buildings would feel like mere annexes. So he created an entry pavilion. You enter it and you rise, either on elevators or stairs, to a position well above the roof of the villa. From here you have a vista of the whole complex, with the Villa not as the dominant center but as one object among several. From this pavilion, you then walk forward on a twisty arrival path that seems carved out of the canyon wall, with marvelous views down into the Villa complex.

There's too much to describe. My favorite of the new buildings is the restaurant, high on a sort of artificial cliff with a beamed roof that reminds you of traditional architecture without mimicking it. With your sandwich and espresso on the terrace, you look down as if from a royal box over the whole complex.

Equally remarkable is what's been done to the Villa itself. In the past this was a dreary place, partly because curators didn't want windows to cast direct sunlight on the paintings. But now the paintings have been removed to the new Getty Center, and the Villa is filled instead with classical sculpture, mosaic, and ceramics. The architects have opened dozens of new windows, transforming the interior into a place of light and long views out. They've also done a superb job of inventing new mosaic floors.

The final pleasure is the landscape. A rich variety of climbing vines and other plants is already softening and coloring the walls of the canyon and the new buildings. Within only a few years in the California climate, the Getty Villa will be a beautiful garden as much as anything else.

Machado and Silvetti have long been prominent in Boston. Both partners are immigrants from Argentina. Jorge Silvetti for many years was chair of the department of architecture at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, and Rodolfo Machado now heads the urban design program in that school.

They avoid developing a recognizable office style, preferring to generate design ideas fresh for each new site and problem. The result is a radical variety of work, including the very unpopular One Western Avenue apartment complex on the Charles River at Harvard, and the much admired Allston branch of the Boston Public Library on Harvard Street.

The Getty Villa is their triumph to date. The funky old Roman villa, which once looked so out of place and so out of time, feels at home at last.

Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell can be reached at camglobe@aol.com.

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