Getty Protection

The Getty Center survives nearby fires while Ellwood-designed home goes down in flames

Thanks to its material palette and double-insulated gallery spaces, the Getty Center was designed to withstand wildfires. (Robert F. Tobler /Wikipedia Commons)

Last Sunday, a wildfire spread to the approximately 656 acres surrounding the Getty Center in the hills of Brentwood, California. Named by the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) as “The Getty Fire,” the blaze was reportedly caused by an errant tree branch that landed in nearby power lines amid powerful wind conditions.

Miraculously, the Richard Meier-designed Getty Center, which contains museum space, research institutes, and a vast collection of priceless artworks, was virtually unscathed by the fire. Given its siting in an area commonly threatened by wildfires, the 24-acre complex was designed to be both fire and smoke-proof when it was completed in 1997. Its material palette of travertine, concrete, and steel make the entire property nonflammable, while each gallery space is a self-contained module, providing additional insulation and ventilation in the event that disaster should somehow strike. Additionally, the Getty Center’s maintenance crew is instructed to rigorously clear brush on a regular basis in its outdoor areas, which are also designed to be relatively fire-retardant. This isn’t the first time the complex has fended off encroaching flames, as a similar situation (and protective response) unfolded at the end of 2017 when the center faced down the Skirball Fire.

Photo of a single-story low-slung house with timber roof

The Zach House, completed in 1952 by Craig Ellwood, was destroyed in the Getty Fire (Julius Shulman/© J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10))

While the Getty Center remains unfazed by the fires, the LAFD has placed 7,091 residences within the Mandatory Evacuation Zone and has determined that 12 residences have been destroyed so far while another five have significant damage. One of the 12 structures lost to the wildfires was the Zach House, an exemplary mid-century home designed by Case Study House architect Craig Ellwood, built in the Crestwood Hills area of Brentwood in 1952. Its wooden construction and delicate structural frame made the home especially prone to natural disasters. “It was an early Ellwood design, but it demonstrated all his distinctive and influential ways of interpreting modernism,” said Southern Californian architectural historian Alan Hess. “Though it remains in photographs, the loss of the actual building to experience makes us poorer.”

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