To the Summit

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In my career, nothing can or will ever equal being chosen as the architect for the Getty Center. Not only was it the most important event of my career, but as things worked out, the project became inextricably linked with my children's growing up.

When the Getty's board invited leading architects to compete in 1982, the members presented the Getty Center as the architect's dream of the decade — at least. And it was. The site was extraordinary — more than 100 acres in the middle of Los Angeles, high above everything, untouched, with views in all directions. And the full vision of what the center would be — museum, research institute, executive offices — was still to be formed.

The yearlong selection process was grueling. One committee replaced another. The contenders were winnowed down from 110 to 30 to nine and finally to three. I flew from New York City to L.A. over and over to answer questions. I flew to Atlanta to show the committee members my High Museum of Art and to Frankfurt, Germany, to take them through my Museum of Decorative Art. Then I did it again with new people. When, toward the end of this ordeal, I was awarded the prestigious Pritzker Prize, all I could think was, I hope this helps me get the job. What anxiety! And so much work! Then one Sunday night after about a year of this, I was having dinner with my children — Joseph was 5, Ana was 4--and the phone rang with the good news. I couldn't believe it. I said, "Kids, you have to drink champagne for the first time in your life." I tried to explain what the job meant. They said, "Oh, that's nice, Dad."

In fact, it was going to mean a lot for them. I had been recently divorced, so every summer and every vacation for the 15 years that the design and building of the Getty took — all the time of their growing up — they spent with me in L.A. I lived next to the site there, and before construction began, we would amble along the trails, looking at the hilltop grounds in different light at different times of day. It was beautiful. During construction, we would saunter through the empty site every weekend, just the three of us. In 1997, when the throngs arrived for the big opening ceremonies, Ana, then 17, said jokingly, "Dad, what are all these people doing here? This is our place."

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Since the Getty, I've designed other buildings I'm very proud of — the Burda Museum in Baden-Baden, Germany; the Perry Street condominium towers that are rising right now in Manhattan on the Hudson River. But the Getty will always remain a touchstone for me. Anytime I feel depressed, all I have to do is go to the Getty, and I get undepressed.

There's a lot of me in those buildings, from the very idea of the organization to the details. I was responsible for how the stone was cut and what stones were chosen, what you see and touch as you move around, the relationship of the buildings to the landscape. There's a sense of human scale that was important to me; all visitors can find a unique place that they feel is their own little niche.

At one point during the selection process, I was asked what materials I would use for the buildings. I spoke of using stone in a major way that could reflect and refract the unique quality of the Southern California light, that would be grounded in the earth and feel like part of the hillside. At the time, I hadn't a clue what I was talking about. But flying back and forth across the Grand Canyon, my nose to the window, I thought, Now that's stone — and the Getty would have to make you feel some of that same kind of excitement.

When I visit, I look for the dozen or so giant, irregular-shaped stones I placed around to change the scale and give an accent to a place. I picked out each one myself in a quarry in Italy. I remember saying "I want this one": it was underwater. I named each of these stones for someone involved in the project, like Carlo, the quarryman. Only I know their names. Of course, there's one for my son and one for my daughter.

All along, I had wanted my kids to be part of the building of the Getty because it was part of me. But I also thought it would help them understand how you go from nothing to something. Now they're both in their 20s. Ana is creating her own art history-literature major at Harvard. Joseph is at Harvard too, studying to become an architect. I guess maybe they got it. --As told to Francine Russo