When Richard Meier was chosen in 1984 to be the architect of the Getty Center in Los Angeles, the job was often referred to as "the commission of the century."
After all, the prestige of the assignment could hardly have been greater. The high hilltop site commanded an entire city, the cultural clout of designing a museum and several scholarly institutes was considerable, and, thanks to oilman J. Paul Getty's 1976 bequest, the client was as rich as Croesus.
"Headache of a decade and a half" might better describe the undertaking, however, judging by "Concert of Wills," an episodically exciting film tracing the 13-year process of getting the center built. The film will air tonight at 10 on WETA.
The film is especially worth watching if you are one of those people irresistibly attracted, week after week, to a construction fence in your neighborhood to watch a building go up from excavation through superstructure to completion. This can be a captivating sight even when the building being built is quite simple, and the fascination quotient is multiplied many times over in a project as prominent and complex as the Getty.
Filmmakers Susan Froemke, Bob Eisenhardt and Albert Maysles edited nearly 200 hours of footage down to a reasonably concise hour and a half. The concert referred to in the title is a dissonant one--the wills are those of the principal players in the enterprise, and we get to know them fairly well as they clash with one another over this or that important feature of the project.
There is Meier himself, sensitive, perturbable and strong; former Getty CEO Harold Williams, a benign bureaucrat on-screen who, you are made to feel, gets the key decisions made off screen; museum Director John Walsh, a perceptive aesthete capable of being confrontational in the nicest way; icy visionary artist Robert Irwin; and others, including a handful of representatives of the nearby Brentwood residential neighborhood whose objections greatly affected the outcome.
The film, commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Trust, endorses the Getty viewpoint that the magnificent end result justified all the cross-purpose quarreling. But, sadly, this isn't the case. The Getty Center, which opened in 1997, is in many ways a splendid piece of architecture with countless incisive details, a superb site plan and superior public spaces with unparalleled views. But it isn't quite magnificent, or at least not uniformly so.
Having to deal with this Hydra-headed client perhaps explains why, for all of his vision and skill, the much-heralded Meier failed to produce something we might call the "building of the century," or even the building of the decade.
In any case, the film's great appeal lies not in such qualitative judgments but in revealing the processes of decision-making and evoking the project's tremendous ambition and complexity. Views of the site from beginning to end are inspiring; scenes of the construction work are enthralling (if always too short); and the marvelous views of cutting great blocks of stone at the Italian quarry are alone worth the price of admission.
Which, after all, is free.
CAPTION: "Concert of Wills," airing at 10 tonight on WETA, chronicles construction of Los Angeles' Getty Center.