Travertine, a type of limestone deposited in hot springs, was first used by the Romans thousands of years ago. Two of the most famous travertine structures were built 2,000 years and half apart: the Colosseum in Rome and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The Getty Center was designed by the architect Richard Meier and opened to the public on December 16, 1997. Sitting on a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains, just off the San Diego Freeway, it has amazing views of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean. The campus, which is clad in Italian travertine, is organized around a central arrival plaza, whose curvilinear design elements soften the toughness created by the travertine slabs. This material is the real protagonist here: 1.2 million square feet of Italian travertine from Bagni di Tivoli, 15 miles east from Rome. This beige-colored, cleft-cut, textured, fossilized stone, usually associated with public architecture, symbolizes in fact qualities that the Getty Center itself celebrates, like permanence, warmth, simplicity and craftsmanship.
Many finished pieces, split along their natural grain, reveal fossilized leaves, branches, feathers, and occasionally bones. Richard Meier and his staff collaborated with the workers from the quarry for a year and actually managed to invent a particular “guillotine” process to create this unique rough textured finish, which shows very antique patterns (Tivoli’s travertine, whose deposits are 300 feet thick, started forming 200,000 years ago and has continued up to the present).
Wall beside ramp with inset feature stone
The 16,000 tons of Italian travertine cover not only the retaining walls and the bases of all buildings, but are also used as paving stones for the arrival plaza and the Museum courtyard. Travertine panels serve as indoor decoration for the transitional walls between galleries, while metal panels cover the upper stories and curvilinear elements to resemble the stone. Most of the paving travertine is honed and unfilled, though the interior one has a filled finish. The particular sepia-toned color of the stone catches the bright Southern California light, reflecting sharply during morning hours, and emitting ahoneyed warmth in the afternoon.
Museum courtyard, column and wall of education center with inset feature stones
The lighter colored travertine on the Getty’s exterior and interior is called Classico; the darker one, used just on some interior parts, is called Barco, and both come from different sections of the same quarry near Rome.
Fountain alcove in east pavilion of Museum, courtyard level
Meier, during his European work, developed an open-joint stone system, which differs from the American technique of sealing the joints with mortar: in this way he was able to protect the surfaces – already treated with a silicate-based water repellent - over time by allowing water to drain behind the outer skin, and to make each stone independently slightly movable, which is critical in earthquake-prone Southern California. In fact, each panel is individually anchored and draftsmen spent more than 3 years creating more than 2,500 shop drawings including every single stone used both in the walls and in the paving. Meier’s perfectionism for this project got famous: he worked with the quarry to create the exact look he wanted for the 290,000 pieces of travertine that cover the buildings.
Corner of wall at end of outdoor Museum cafe,travertine panel with leaf fossils
The critics are correct when they say that travertine makes Meier’s design succeed. In fact, without it, the Getty would be good architecture; with it, the Getty is actually great architecture and this particular travertine is unlike any other one used in buildings in the United States.
Pictures from http://academic.reed.edu/getty/travertine.html