The wildfire-prone Santa Monica Mountains might sound like a terrible location for a billion dollar museum containing priceless works of art. But when Los Angeles' Getty Center was conceived by its board in the late 1980's, they were well aware of the risk.
In fact, the fire currently raging across the highway from the Getty as of Wednesday is exactly the scenario the museum was built to withstand since it first opened its doors in 1997.
The center uses a variety of architectural and design techniques to mitigate the adverse affects of wildfires. "When the Getty was designed and built 20 years ago, it was designed in such a way to actually protect the collection from disasters, like a fire," said Ron Hartwig, the Getty's vice president of communications.
The Getty Center is closed to the public today. The fire is northeast of the Getty Center and east of the San Diego Freeway. Air filtration systems are protecting the galleries from smoke. We continue to monitor the situation and will issue updates as we have them.
— J. Paul Getty Museum (@GettyMuseum) December 6, 2017
Early Wednesday morning, a brush fire in West Los Angeles quickly grew to over 50 acres, prompting the shut down of the 405 freeway, and threatening the wealthy neighborhood of Bel-Air, as well as other nearby communities like Brentwood and Westwood. The latest figures from the LA fire department put the blaze at 150 acres.
The fire is raging on the east side of the freeway, where Bel-Air residents have been told to evacuate. According to the LA Times, several homes in the area have already succumbed to fire.
The Getty Center is a 940,000-square-foot complex that fills 24 acres of the 110-acre Santa Monica Mountains site. It's also on the freeway's west side. But 10 lanes of concrete doesn't mean the museum is safe - all it would take is one ember blown from the adjacent hillside to set aflame the western hills on which the Getty sits.
But even in that scenario, thanks largely to architect Richard Meier, the art at The Getty - including Van Gogh's "Irises" - is surprisingly secure.
"Meier was sensitive to the fact of where the Getty was being built," Hartwig said. "And of course, very, very sensitive to the fact that it would contain world class art that had to be protected."
Vincent Van Gogh's 'Irises' is part of The Getty's permanent collection.
The Getty Museum is essentially a fortress specifically designed to protect itself and the art it houses from fire damage. That's because its founders were well aware that the low-moisture vegetation growing on the mountains make for "volatile fire risk," according to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
Landscapers placed plants with high water content around the perimeter of the building.
The area around the Getty was designed to keep fire at bay. Landscapers placed plants with high water content around the perimeter of the building, because they are slowest to catch fire. They also replanted the surrounding hills with native planting.
The California Native Plant society argues that a well-maintained area of native vegetation can actually help contain wildfires, because the plants are designed to burn out, so that they can then re-grow. The main culprit in wildfire is not native planting, it's combustible brush — which the Getty is vigilant about regularly clearing from the surrounding areas.
The museum itself is built of non-combustible materials; the stone is travertine (a form of Italian limestone) and the panels are aluminum. Inside the building, a "sophisticated" air filtration system activates in the event of a fire: it reverses normal air circulation, blowing outward and thereby forcing air out of the galleries. The system then seals the galleries off from smoke and fire.
"Today we're closed both to the public and to our staff," Hartwig said. "But the protection of the art collection itself is the building. The building becomes the safest place for it to be."
The Getty closed the museum to visitors on Tuesday, before the Wednesday fire, to protect the art from smoke that had reached West Los Angeles from the Thomas, Creek, and Rye fires to its north.
Due to continuing smoke from fires in the region, the Getty Center and Getty Villa will remain closed to visitors tomorrow, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. pic.twitter.com/rAxpPYx0GT
— J. Paul Getty Museum (@GettyMuseum) December 5, 2017
Protecting the priceless
The Getty Center itself cost over one billion dollars to construct between 1987 and its 1997 opening. That doesn't even take into account its contents, which include, just to name a few, a Manet painting that the museum purchased in 2014 for $65.1 million, and a collection of 16 drawings and a painting by artists including Michelangelo, Parmigianino and Watteau that the museum recently purchased for $100 milion this year.
"It would be hard to put any kind of an estimate on it," Hartwig said, "simply because some of the works are priceless."
The Getty purchased Édouard Manet's 'Jeanne (Spring)' in 2014 for over $65 million.
The Getty's security team is in communication with the fire department, and monitoring the situation. But that's par for the course for the museum, which Hartwig says consistently works closely with the LA fire department and police department to ensure the building's security.
Because of the smoke, the Getty was already closed to the public the day the fire broke out. But the museum faced a more unexpected wildfire scenario in 2015. During that year's Sepulveda Pass fire, the Getty had to evacuate visitors from its premises before it could put the air filtration safeguards in place.
In 2015, The Getty had to evacuate visitors during the 'Sepulveda Pass Fire.'
Image: Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Still, Getty employees worry about the risks should the fire travel across the 405. The forecast for stronger winds overnight and Thursday adds to that concern.
"Whenever there's a situation like this, until it's finally resolved, and until all the fire is out, we're on constant alert, and always concerned about anything that could happen that we haven't thought about," Hartwig said. "But at this moment in time, with the exception of our deep concern for our neighbors, everything at the Getty is going according to plan."
"Whatever can be done to protect the Getty center from danger," he added, "has been done."