Getty Center gardens, finally!

It took me 20 years to visit the Getty Center in Los Angeles for the first time, but through a fortunate combination of circumstances I've now been there twice in the last six months. Not that I'm complaining; if I lived closer, I'd be a regular!

The Getty Center is one of the most visited art museums in the U.S. I'm convinced people come as much for the location as they do for the priceless European art on display. The Getty Center sits all by itself on top of a hill next to the 405 freeway. Visitors park their cars in a 6-story underground parking structure at the base of the hill and take the tram to the museum complex—a ride of less than five minutes. Parking costs $15 ($10 after 3pm), but there is no charge to use the tram or see the museum exhibits.

Volumes have been written and said about the Getty Center, oil billionaire J. Paul Getty, his vast art collection, and of course about the trials and tribulations of his family, including the 1973 kidnapping of his grandson (the topic of the 2017 Ridley Scott movie All the Money in the World). And like virtually everything associated with the Gettys, the Getty Center, one of the two museum complexes run by the Getty Trust, is the stuff of superlatives. Built over the course of eight years at a cost of $733 million (including $115 million for the 750 acres of land), the property was valued at almost $4 billion in 2013 (not including the art).

In addition to its location, architecture, and art, the Getty Center has something else: world-famous gardens. The Central Garden with its three towering steel arbors draped with hot-pink bougainvillea, and the Cactus Garden on top of the South Promontory, are destinations in their own right, as evidenced by steady streams of visitors.

Cactus Garden with an unobstructed view of downtown Los Angeles
With the exception of the Central Garden, the landscape design was created by landscape architect Laurie Olin's firm Olin Partnership. Formal, geometric, and using a muted palette of greens, grays and whites, the plantscape harmonizes with the architecture without ever challenging it. It's said that this is the kind of landscape the Getty Center's architect Richard Meier had wanted. 

Meier's favorite color, white, is dominant throughout. Here are some examples:

But then there's this:

This definitely doesn't fit into Meier and Olin's muted color scheme. That's because the Central Garden is a thing onto itself. Created by installation artist Robert Irwin in cooperation with Andrew Spurlock of Spurlock Porrier Landscape Architects, it's actually a copyrighted (!) piece of art officially described as "Mixed media (construction and plant material), 134,000 sq. ft." Irwin himself referred to it as "a sculpture in the form of a garden aspiring to be art." Since it's technically an artwork, not a garden, it's exempt from any water restrictions. This means the water features that are an essential part of Irwin's creation can run even in drought years.

Interestingly, Richard Meier, the architect of the buildings, hated Robert Irwin's Central Garden, and Robert Irwin hated Richard Meier's architecture—so much so that Irwin banned white-flowering plants, hard geometric shapes and gleaming metal from the Central Garden. Any steel used has been left to rust so it blends in instead of standing out. 

As a an artwork with its own accession number, the Central Garden isn't tended as much as it is "curated" (1). And even though Robert Irwin isn't involved in the ongoing upkeep, all plant choices are made with Irwin's "original intent" in mind (2).

As a side note, if you're interested in an in-depth examination of the Central Garden, here's a 2007 Master's thesis from Louisiana State University student Jennifer Kay Zell entitled The Art of Perception: Robert Irwin's Central Garden at the J. Paul Getty Center. While appropriately abstract in some sections, it does describe the design and creation of the Central Garden in easy-to-understand language.

The transition from Olin's formal landscaping to Irwin's exuberant Central Garden begins smoothly enough. The palette starts with whites and greens...

A combo I've never seen before: variegated Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica 'Variegata') and variegated elephant's bush (Portulacaria afra 'Variegata')

 ...and slowly includes more and more colors, muted at first but becoming more vibrant the closer you get to the heart of the garden.

From the top, you descend on a narrow zig-zagging path through the Stream Garden. Five bridges crisscrosses a channel with massive boulders that look like they were playfully tossed there by giants needing to work off some energy. In reality, the boulders were placed very carefully to modulate the sound of the water. 

View of the channel from above. This photo was taken last December when the plane trees were bare. In spring through fall this area is in dappled shade.

White-flowering form of Russelia equisetiformis

Red-flowering dyckia playing off reddish-brownish cordyline

Robert Irwin particularly likes mirror plants (this is Coprosma repens 'Pacific Sunset')

More coprosma on the left, and variegated bear's breeches (Acanthus 'Whitewater') in the middle

View of the channel with one of the five bridges

Similar view in the winter, with bare trees

Bottom section of the channel

The water from the channel cascades over a stone waterfall called a "chadar" into a large reflecting pool at the lowest point in the Central Garden. In the middle of the pool is a maze-like network of planters that hold flowering azaleas. I don't know what significance the design has, if any, but it looks a bit like something you might see in an English knot garden.

These two photos of the azalea maze were taking last December

The heart of the Central Garden are the three bougainvillea arbors I already mentioned. What you see below is a mix of photos I took in December 2017 and June 2018. In the December photos you can clearly see the structure of the rebar constructs.

In his must-have book The California Garden Tour (Timber Press 2017), Donald Olson calls them "giant wheatsheaves." Yeah, I can see that. To me, they look like metal flower bouquets tied in the middle.

But no matter what they remind you of, they're unique.


If you think I went a bit crazy with the camera, you're right. But I took even more photos of the bougainvillea arbors than I'm including in this post!

Here's one more. I didn't really pay attention to the people sitting in the chairs until I was editing my photos for this post.

Take a closer look: I have no idea what the four were reacting to but it must have been quite a surprise. I was right there but I completely missed it, whatever it was.

The terraced sections surrounding the sunken pool make up the Bowl Garden. A few areas feature mass plantings of a single species—variegated society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea 'Silver Lace') on one side, and a South African restio (Chondropetalum tectorum) on this side:

The rest of the Bowl Garden, however, is an explosion of colors and textures. While there were flowers even in December, spring and summer are definitely the best seasons to experience the floral exuberance. This is the kind of garden that puts a smile on your face. It's so cheerful, you simply can't help it. Think of it as nature's antidote to the blues.

Leucadendron argenteum

Mass planting of variegated society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea 'Silver Lace')

View of the bougainvillea arbors and the stone waterfall

Canary Island daisy (Asteriscus sericeus)

Phormium and alstroemeria

Verbena bonariensis and common poppy (Papaver rhoeas)

Solar fire (Ursinia anthemoides), an annual from South Africa

Kangaroo paw (Anizoganthos hybrid) heaven

That's it for the Central Garden, Robert Irwin's "garden aspiring to be art." It does contrast with the landscaping in the other parts of the Getty Center campus, but I don't think the two are at war, as some people seem to think. There's plenty of room for both joyous exuberance and formal restraint. It doesn't have to be just one or the other.

On that note, let's move on to the Cactus Garden on top of the South Promontory. You get to it by climbing down a set of stairs flanked by a dense planting of Aloidendron barberae and Euphorbia ingens

The tree aloes are trimmed regularly to keep them compact (3); otherwise they would grow to 30 ft. or more.

For succulent lovers, the Cactus Garden is the highlight of a Getty Center visit. It's located on top of the South Promontory, the southern tip of the hill the Getty Center is built on. In the original design, this spot was to become a plaza, which makes perfect sense considering the sweep views you have from here (4). 

However, when homeowners who lived below the Getty Center threatened legal action for invasion of privacy—they were afraid that visitors would be able to see into their properties from above—the original idea was abandoned in favor of a cactus garden that would be off limits to the public. 

The final design for the Cactus Garden was created by Dennis McGlade of Olin Partnership. Shaped like a letter P flipped on its side, the Cactus Garden uses a limited plant palette and achieves its visual impact through repetition. The spine of the P—the long stretch that looks like runway—is planted almost entirely with golden barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) and Senecio serpens. The semicircle on top is a livelier mix of Euphorbia ingens, Trichocereus pachinoi, Cereus peruvianus, Opuntia robusta, Opuntia santa-rita, and Agave americana 'Variegata'. While there is a drip irrigation system, it apparently hasn't been in use since 2002 (5). As the plants have matured, they have been able to survive on rainfall alone. 

Since access to the South Promontory has always been difficult, the Cactus Garden had to be installed by hand, without cranes or other heavy machinery. The golden barrel cactus were eight years old at the time but already weighed between 25 and 50 pounds each. As Gail Feigenbaum writes in her 2005 article "Radical Cactus: The Other Garden at the Getty Center:"
[They] were carefully wrapped in newspaper and burlap and then rigged so that they could be carried on the backs of the workers who had to climb up the rugged slope to the terrace. Access to the site, and consequently the ability to change plants in and out, would be a perpetual challenge. The garden was thus planned and executed as a stable display for instant effect.

The Cactus Garden may be a living thing, but it essentially functions as a static piece of art—a giant outdoor painting, if you will. You view it from one spot, from a preset distance. Similar to a painting on a museum wall that has a security barrier in front of it, you can look at it straight on or at a slight angle from the sides, but you can't examine it up close. Clearly, this is how the Cactus Garden is meant to be seen, but the plant lover in me wanted nothing more than to walk around among the succulents.

While I think the Cactus Garden is pretty fantastic, it isn't universally loved. In his book Desert Gardens, Gary Lyons, curator of the Desert Garden at the Huntington, wrote (6):
… masses of golden barrel cacti are set out like a commercial growing ground appearing to hold off an attack of variegated century plants, with pincer-like sweep of hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pacanoi) pushing from one side and oozing masses of prickly pear from the other cutting off all hope of escape. I feel sorry for the gardeners who must maintain these unnatural associations.
Ouch! That's quite a scathing takedown!

If I had been able to get closer, I would have taken many more photos. Since I didn't have a telephoto lens with me, I couldn't zoom in much. This is the best I could do:

During our June visit, I stayed on the Cactus Garden viewing platform until the sun was almost down. Surprisingly, the number of visitors dwindled dramatically the lower the sun got. I would have thought more people would be arriving, not the opposite.

While this post is about the gardens at the Getty Center, I do want to show you a few photos of the architecture. Architect Richard Meier's vision was a campus of (nearly) white buildings, and that's exactly what you see. The buildings are clad in Italian travertine—16,000 tons from the same quarry as the stone used to build the Colosseum in Rome circa 70 CE. Water features are placed in strategic locations to create white noise that muffles the ambient sounds. 

I've visited my share of museums, but the Getty Center is unique: Sitting on top of a hill all by itself, it's like a self-contained village—the modern-day version of a medieval fortification protected against the outside world by geography. Walking across the plazas, up and down stairs to different levels, is a thrilling experience: What might be around this corner, what's down that staircase? I hope this sense of mystery will never go away for me.

Boy with Frog by Charles Ray

Sculptor Charles Ray's Boy with Frog said hi to us when we arrived. Now he's saying bye as we're leaving. It's good to know he'll still be there the next time I visit—or at least I hope so since he's technically on loan.

© Gerhard Bock, 2018. No part of the materials available through may be copied, photocopied, reproduced, translated or reduced to any electronic medium or machine-readable form, in whole or in part, without prior written consent of Gerhard Bock. Any other reproduction in any form without the permission of Gerhard Bock is prohibited. All materials contained on this site are protected by  United States and international copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Gerhard Bock. If you are reading this post on a website other than, please be advised that that site is using my content without my permission. Any unauthorized use will be reported.


  1. I enjoyed your tour, Gerhard. I've never been to the Getty Center and must remedy that one day. It does kind of seem like the Central Garden is an odd duck with the rest of the landscaping, but since you've been there and feel that it works, I'll take your word for it. It's certainly lovely to see the exuberance of the plantings against the clipped hedges (wild juxtaposed with formal, a combo I especially like).

    The wheat sheaves trellises remind me of similar ones at the flagship Whole Foods in downtown Austin. Did you happen to see them while you were at Austin Fling? They're pictured in an old blog post I wrote about the landscaping there:

  2. I always appreciate the depth with which you research your garden travel destinations. I can't tell you how many times I've visited the Getty Center but I'd never heard that the the Central Garden was classified as an art installation exempt from the city/state water restrictions. The Central Garden is ever changing, albeit within an established framework, so there's always something new to appreciate. You've reminded me that it's been a year or so since my last visit - although I'll probably hold off on a trip until the weather cools now.

  3. With the hilarious exaggerated poses that picture of the 4 people on the benches at the base of the Bougainvillea bouquets looks like a P.P. Rubens painting!

  4. You may remember that my one and only visit was the day after *gasp* there was actual rainfall in Los Angeles. As a result the Centrral Garden was closed. The reason I was given was because visitors shoes might become soiled, and *another gasp* dirt might be tracked into and around the galleries. It makes more sense now that you’ve shown a light on the differences between the two design powerhouse names.

  5. A I remember a lot of the paths in the central garden are DG, so when wet, visitor feet would sink into a gooey muck of sorts. Would be a mess for visitors as much as for the galleries.

    I always hated one feature of the Central garden which are the azaleas in full sun that look sun scorched and miserable about 10 months of the year. I thought I read the gardeners must constantly replant new ones because the azaleas are always dying. When asked about the use of an understory plant baking in full sun, the artist shrugged and said to the effect of so what. Quelle arrogance.

    Love though otherwise the constant addition of the current year's "it" plants--one can always see the latest and greatest there. The gardeners have a good budget and have fun with it.

    Great comment from Lyons! One thing that annoys me is that they plant the Agaves too close together and then hack off the bottom leaves. Why not plant 1/10 so many and let them grow to their full and glorious size?

    Very informative post. You are becoming the Rick Steves of gardens!

  6. I love seeing your take on these gardens... I go the Getty these days and forget there is art in the buildings. I actually think the contrast between the exuberant central garden and austere landscaping elsewhere is one of the best parts...

  7. I love the architecture here, and the last time I was there I noted the use of some pretty mundane plants in the central garden, yet somehow they look less mundane in the context of this garden. Not easy to achieve.

  8. Not to mention it's the perfect stand-in for Star Fleet in the new Chris Pine Star Trek franchise…;)
    Striding as it does over the Sepulveda Pass and some of the worst traffic in LA means I don't go often enough. The plantings in the Central Garden seemed to me to decline from its first debut, yet your photos show vibrant plantings -- including a gorgeous specimen of Coulter Bush! The labyrinth gives the effect of a garden "in the round," with so many perspective points, such a mad idea but a wonderful counterpoint to all that travertine geometry. And it's so great to see the boug's finally filled out and blooming well -- great post!

  9. Always interesting to read/hear other's viewpoints on the Central Garden. My first visit years ago was with the Bay Area Hortisexuals, and the prevailing viewpoint was that it was art at the expense of sustainable or reasonable plantmanship. I must admit I was really bothered by the lack of horticultural compatibility in planting combinations, the sheer wastefulness of put it in and replace it frequently and sadly too little attention to finding plants with the desired color/texture/form that actually could work longer term where forced to play their role. These sorts of horticultural hubris made me not respect the garden as anything but performance art. Perhaps too harsh, but I really value gardens as art that make more effort to be sustainable without huge budgets.


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