This summer, architectural historian Wim de Wit put on the largest architecture show in the history of the Getty Center. Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940–1990 had more than 400 objects on display, covering just about every name-brand and not-so-name brand architect and trend. From Frank Gehry to Armet & Davis; from Googie to industrial gigantism, the show echoed through the city in unexpected ways. Not least, in helping to put the subject of architecture before a wide, and inquisitive audience.
After 20 years as the director of architecture and contemporary art at the Getty Research Institute (GRI), de Wit is leaving Los Angeles for San Francisco, taking a curator’s post at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center. During his extensive tenure, he oversaw the vast expansion of an architectural archive that now houses papers, drawings, and models, from Aldo Rossi, Philip Johnson, Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, the Bauhaus, and Ray Kappe.
AN contributor Greg Goldin caught up with de Wit recently, the 17 hour days of Overdrive seemingly a chimera of lapsed memory. In the wake of the massive show, de Wit wanted to clarify his 20-year mission—which, he said, was not exhibitions. His job was to acquire architecture archives and preserve them for research. Hardly the kind of quest that puts a man in the spotlight. He will remain a consultant at the GRI, and he still speaks in the present—and future—tense, as if he were contemplating his latest acquisition.
Courtesy Getty Research Institute
AN: After Overdrive, I suppose everyone misinterprets, in retrospect, what it actually is that you did at the GRI?
WD: When I first came to the Getty we couldn’t even talk about exhibitions. Of course, that changed the minute we came up here [to Brentwood] and had a real gallery. Still, it’s always first: How will it be used by researchers? And, of course, you don’t know how it’s going to be used. And somebody uses it in a context that you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, I never thought about that.’ That’s the best.
So, you’re a collector first and foremost. Does this mean you hoard? Why take one set of papers or models and not another?
Actually, we reject more than we accept. For example, there are a number of California architects who do similar work. So if we already have this particular architect who does one kind of residential or public architecture, and somebody offers material that is, basically, the same work, then we’ll say we have that already. Of course, there’s always a little bit of stuff in there that we may be able to learn something different from. But we also have to think about our space, and how much it costs to catalog, and how much to store forever, because these things will be here forever, whatever that means, and nobody can imagine that, what it is, but it will be, hopefully, thousands of years. Then we say, “We don’t need that.”
Okay, at the other end, I’m sure there are things you covet but don’t get.
Those things are painful. In general, they come with a purchase price. And sometimes you just can’t come to an agreement. At some point you say, “Sorry, we can’t afford it, and nobody should pay that much for this particular drawing.”
Do you feel like, as we sit here now, there are holes in the collection? Do you say to yourself, “Damn, that should have made it here no matter the price.”
No. Never. There are, indeed, things that I’ve lost, and that went to other collections. I don’t want to name names.
You’ve got to name some names.
Well, let’s think. There must be something. [He maintains his silence.]
Is something from a Southern California architect going to have more weight within your overall collection?
Well, that’s an interesting question because the Getty Research Institute, which was called the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, originally only focused on Europe. They did not immediately want to make people too nervous about going to buy anything that would be for sale here right around the corner.
Because it was perceived that the Getty had all this money, and suddenly the price of everything would go up.
So what is the core strength of the collection you’ve assembled?
Early twentieth century, especially European Modernism. Bauhaus, students of the Bauhaus—very important material. Also Italian Futurism, German Modernism, French materials, that’s all incredibly strong. And then we have interesting materials that document the history of building types, for example.
At some point the emphasis shifted?
The start was the Julius Shulman archive.
That came before you acquired the John Lautner archives?
Yes. There had been conversations off and on since the 1980s with Shulman. Around 2000 we really become serious about it, and in 2004 it all shipped to us. Lautner was three years later. In between was Pierre Koenig. That archive was when Mrs. Koenig heard about the Julius archive, she came to us and said, “Well, what about Pierre’s?” That was 2006. And then, from there, [it grew] very quickly.
How do you distinguish between good and important work and not-so-good, not-so-important?
I’m one of those architectural historians who thinks that sometimes not-so-important stuff is also important to look at. Like Edward Durell Stone. Nobody’s trying to say that his Von KleinSmid Center at USC is the best building in town. But we put it in Overdrive. His archive is in Arkansas, and that’s where it should stay. But [if it were available] I think I could defend the acquisition. I really could. He had an office in Palo Alto and he had an impact on the built environment of Los Angeles. Not everybody thinks about collecting architecture that way. Curators might say, “I only want to go for the best or for who changed things.” That’s one way of looking at it. I would not want to limit myself that way.
We’re also not in a position to know how we’ll understand things over time.
Los Angeles itself is weighing this kind of thing right now, with LACMA proposing to demolish the William Pereira buildings while leaving the Bruce Goff standing. People are fighting to preserve Pereira and no one even mentions Goff, one way or the other. They don’t see Goff as being in the Pantheon of…
But he is going to be, like John Lautner. Lautner went through that phase, and people will come back to Bruce Goff.
Overdrive was a huge exhibit, occupying a huge gallery. Normally you work in a very small gallery space. Do you have a preference for how you work?
I could not immediately do an exhibition like that again. It took three and a half years. And you have to keep the whole exhibition in your head! At the same time, you are working on the catalog…whenever there was a deadline for the checklist there was also a deadline for the book.
As you reflect on nearly two decades at the Getty, do you think you’ve put something into the genetic code of this institution?
I think I’ve made the architecture collection of the Getty known to the world. Especially through the California collection, although it will be a long time before we can compete with U.C. Santa Barbara, because they have such important materials there.
Well (longtime UCSB archivist) David Gebhard had a big head start.
Yeah, he was there in 1950-something.
And I don’t think anybody wanted it. Either put it into a dumpster or give it to Gebhard.
And he had [the collection] in his garage. And the first time I saw it was in a wooden shed somewhere on the Santa Barbara campus. It was all in brown paper. All the things you’re not supposed to do, he did. But at least he preserved them. And the drawings did survive.
You’re headed north, to Stanford. What will you do there?
I’m going to be adjunct curator at the Cantor Arts Center. I’m working on an exhibition about the International Design Conference in Aspen. Six years ago I acquired the archive of IDCA when it died, so to say. It’s a wonderful archive with incredible information about all the debates that were going on in the design world between 1951 and 2004. 54 incredibly important years. It’s very difficult to make an exhibition about a conference, because it’s words, but the archive has lots of great graphic design: programs, posters, invitations, all beautifully designed, so you can work with that.
So it’s a bit like leafing through Arts & Architecture.
Yeah, but I want to show the connection between the word and the design. And learn from that. For instance, I spoke to Ray and Shelly Kappe recently, and they said, “Oh, we went to the 1972 conference, and that’s where Richard Saul Wurman was the chairman of that particular conference, it was about education, and that inspired us a lot for how to start SCI-Arc.” That was an amazing piece of news.
When will the show open?
Will you miss Los Angeles, and the kind friction of this place versus the kind of suburban and academic setting of Palo Alto?
Yes, I think I will. It’s kind of strange, having worked now for these four years [just] on Los Angeles, starting to have the feeling that I understand the city a bit, and there’s still so much more to be understood, and to leave—that’s kind of a strange thing.
I’ll bet. Because I’m not sure anybody understands this place, and I think that’s why we all stick around. Because we keep searching for some way to get a grasp on it.
Uh-huh, yeah. And I’ve done it now several times in my life. When I was still in Holland, I worked on Dutch architecture. When I came to the United States, I was doing an exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt about this Dutch group of architects. Then I went to the Chicago Historical Society to work on Chicago architecture. Then I came here. I’ve done this now a few times. I’m not going to worry this time around.