Few cultural events of the late 20th century have been anticipated for so long by so many people as next Tuesday's opening of the Getty Center -- a unique organization with a potful of money, a brand-new museum, an immense library, scientific laboratories, grant-giving institutes and a spectacular hilltop site above this sprawling city.

To be sure, public fascination with the Getty fortune has done more than high culture to fuel the pageant of publicity that has preceded the opening. Building on the money it inherited after the 1976 death of J. Paul Getty, the oddball oil tycoon once known as the richest man in the world, the center now has more than $4 billion in the bank, making it by far the richest visual arts institution in the world. The Getty Museum habitually outbids competitors in the rarefied market for artistic masterworks, and the center's programs in research, conservation and education operate on a global scale.

Then, there were the duration, visibility and size of the billion-dollar building project. It took six years after the land was purchased for construction to begin, and eight more to finish the job. Much of Los Angeles was able to watch every day as bulldozers completely reshaped the hilltop and a small army of workers blanketed the site, giving form to architect Richard Meier's impressive cluster of stone- and metal-clad citadels. Depending on how you count them, between six and a baker's dozen buildings cap the hill, enclosing nearly a million square feet. Three thousand California oaks were planted on the hillsides.

Controversy kept the klieg lights of publicity burning throughout the massive building campaign. Rancorous dispute followed selection of the site in the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains. Well-heeled neighbors in nearby Brentwood complained about almost everything -- the Getty's conditional use permit contained 107 restrictions, ranging from major items such as building heights to nitpicky limitations on night lighting. And down in the Los Angeles basin, grumbling never ceased about the "elitist" decision to build above the city -- to get to the Getty you park your car in a mammoth underground garage and transfer to a sleek tram for a five-minute ride to the top.

Yet now that the hour has arrived, most of the criticism seems overagitated or irrelevant. Meier's mighty bastion of culture turns out to be an astonishingly friendly place. It may not be one of the triumphant architectural works of our time -- there were too many chiefs involved, it suffered severely from all the imposed restraints, and perhaps it is just too massive for this 24-acre site. (Although the Getty owns more than 700 acres, the buildable area was strictly limited.) But that it even comes close is a tribute to the 63-year-old Meier's well-honed talents and, not incidentally, to his negotiating skills.

True, the distant view from the Santa Monica Freeway is not all that promising. The large, light-colored modern buildings do not so much grace the hill as occupy it -- this could be a giant corporate headquarters (and, in a way, it is). But the closer you get, the better it looks, and, once you have attained the top of the hill, the campus opens itself up in a most entrancing fashion. Even before construction started, Getty Museum Director John Walsh predicted that this would be "a place visitors will have a hard time tearing themselves away from." Now, seven years later, we can see how right he was.

Meier is the quintessential modern architect. His heroes are the masters of early modernism, Le Corbusier in particular. His work over a distinguished career traces a path toward ever-greater refinement, complexity and abstraction, and his Getty design possesses all three qualities in abundance. He shaped the hill as a series of interpenetrating solids and voids. The architecture unfolds in a fascinating sequence of interior and exterior spaces, framed by great walls of rough-cut travertine or buff-colored metal plates. (For the sake of contrast, there is an occasional trumpet blast of Meier's trademark white.)

Overall, a certain harmony prevails. Architecture and nature, inside and outside, light and shadow coexist in a balance that seems right. Plantings and fountains act as strong counterpoints to powerful forms, broad plazas, quiet nooks, impressive ceremonial stairwells, narrow passageways, superb galleries, countless terraces with astounding views. Simply put, Meier's hilltop campus under the California sun is a wonderful place.

When Meier was chosen as architect in the fall of 1984, after a much heralded competition for "the commission of the century," the Getty Center was still relatively unformed. There was, of course, the museum in Malibu, modeled on a Roman villa that had been buried 1,900 years earlier by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. (The Malibu villa was closed last summer; it is being completely renovated and will reopen after the turn of the century as a home for Mediterranean antiquities.)

But the decision had been made to build a new museum and to devote the Getty millions to the visual arts, giving rise to the institutes that now share the promontory with the museum. However, the size and specific functions of each institute were still being worked out and the museum collections needed significant improvement. Together with the unrelenting pressure from the Brentwood Homeowners Association, deliberations about such matters produced delays and constant readjustments of the design. Despite the Getty's wealth, there were also repeated budget crises.

The prominence and relative isolation of the site prompted a long-lasting dispute that in many ways resembles the argument Washington had back in the '60s when the location of the Kennedy Center was being discussed. The Getty museum and institutes, it is commonly said, would have done better to locate in downtown sites to be closer to more people and to stimulate the downtown's flagging economy. As in Washington, where separate downtown locations were urged for the Kennedy Center's three large auditoriums, there is validity to this argument.

But in both places this point of view too easily ignored the realities of the real estate market -- one huge site on the edge being a lot simpler to acquire than several sizable ones in the center. If you really want to get something built, that is no small consideration. Downtown locations would have been fine in certain ways, but the hilltop is excellent in others.

For the Getty, the time-honored cultural pattern of a campus on a hill offers the advantage of a cohesive identity and synergy among its various parts. For the Getty's diverse audience, the hilltop will exert a powerful pull. Not the least of its advantages, in a city of fabulous but mostly private views, are the exhilarating panoramic vistas -- mountains, green hillsides with their rambling houses, skyscrapers, the stretched-out flatlands and the vast Pacific Ocean.

The decision to build a number of buildings, rather than one or two immense structures, gave Meier the opportunity to work his spatial magic. He looked to the site for his organizing principle, noting that there were two primary ridges and that these split at the same 22.5-degree angle as the bend in the Santa Monica Freeway below, on its way through the Sepulveda Pass. Superimposing two grids based on the lines of this angle, he proceeded to create a coherent, yet constantly changing, sequence of buildings and spaces.

In his site plan, for instance, Meier used this angle repeatedly to enliven the campus by ranging the more public buildings -- the multi-pavilioned museum, in particular -- along one parallel set of lines and the less public areas, such as offices and laboratories, along the other set. Then, whenever a refreshing change was needed, he was able to twist a public pavilion into line with the "private" buildings, or vice versa. For example, though the 400-seat auditorium is in line with the private grid, its main facade turns elegantly to align with the museum. Of course, such manipulations are better understood in a book or from the air; on the ground, the ordering is more sensed than comprehended because Meier's surprises come in both two and three dimensions.

Visitors will find themselves anticipating the next surprise -- another strikingly framed view, or cylindrical bay, or subtle change in texture or color or form. Meier's reputation as a cool, super-rational modernist is deserved, but, as the Getty demonstrates, this does not rule out the unexpected. Or even the affectionately whimsical -- Meier had a steel trellis next to the restaurant painted a pale but incongruous shade of purple in tribute to James Stirling, the late English architect. Stirling was a friend, you see, and also a finalist who lost out to Meier for the Getty job, and he used such colors -- more loudly -- in his own notable buildings.

The art museum is the prime attraction at the Getty, although it seems certain that the architecture and the views, as much as the art, will keep people coming back. Like many American museums this one was conceived as a temple on a hill -- you ascend to art, as to the gods -- but except for the grand entry stairwell, it took a very untemple-like form. Occupying one of the ridges, the Getty Museum is a series of handsome pavilions grouped around a long courtyard; the pavilions read pretty much as separate buildings although they are linked by corridors, bridges and terraces.

You enter through an immense, airy, cylindrical building, from which you get enticing glimpses of the courtyard and its Alhambra-like fountains. It is while moving around the courtyard and terraces of the museum that you experience most intensely the musical way that Meier plays variations on his favorite themes, working transparency against solidity, the diagonal against the curve, the hard against the soft, and so on. Here, too, you begin to notice the superb detailing both in design and craftsmanship -- the three-inch-thick travertine panels, for example, separated by half-inch reveals rather than mortar joints. It is a system Meier perfected during his many years of working with metal-panel facades -- the weather protection is applied behind the building's "skin."

Each of the museum pavilions consists of two high-ceilinged floors and each has a spacious atrium, yet each has its own character. The arrangement of pavilions around a courtyard has two notable advantages. It allows visitors to choose their own routes -- you can start at the beginning, the end or in the middle -- and it provides the constant stimulation of moving from outside to the inside and back again. Even on a rainy day you repeatedly get a sense of the outside world through glass-enclosed balconies and bridges. For these reasons, among others, the Getty is one of the most pleasant museums in the world.

For the interiors, museum director Walsh wisely insisted on a series of traditional, quadrilateral rooms rather than the open-ended, flexible spaces more typical of modern architecture. Meier responded with a fetching assortment of rooms -- at one point, he turned the basic long rectangle on its head to make a spectacular gallery more than 50 feet high. Predictably, these rooms are beautifully, if sparingly, detailed, with the disappointing exception of the ground-floor decorative arts galleries in several pavilions. For these, the Getty hired architect Thierry Despont to design interiors in a period vein (see accompanying story).

The paintings galleries on the second floors of four pavilions are worth special attention. They are exceptional refinements of those created nearly two centuries ago by Sir John Soane for the Dulwich College Picture Gallery in London -- high walls supporting canted vaults topped by a glass-and-steel box with adjustable louvers. As a result, ever-changing natural light spreads evenly through the finely proportioned rooms.

Human scale clearly was a paramount concern throughout the complex. Despite the disadvantage of having to build many of the offices, laboratories and service spaces underground, Meier ingeniously managed to give most of them access to natural light and landscaped open areas -- the working environments are not lavish, but they are pretty in a minimalist way, and above all are thoughtful and humane. (An exception on all counts is the system of dreary subterranean corridors that link the spread-out buildings; they could be below deck on an aircraft carrier.)

Architecturally, the most prepossessing single statement, after the museum, is the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, a monumental cylinder with a pie slice cut out. Meier calls it "a Guggenheim for books," in reference to Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral art museum in Manhattan -- not the first time he has paid tribute to the American master. Situated on the ridge opposite that of the museum, this is the intellectual heart of the institution and already one of the greatest art libraries in the world. Open to the sky and yet twisting into the ground like an enormous, shiny screw, the building offers plenty of food for metaphorical thought.

Landscaping plays a critical role throughout the complex. The contribution of landscape architect Laurie Olin is particularly notable; working closely with Meier, he selected and placed most of the trees, vines and flowering plants near the buildings. (Another landscape architect did the hillside plantings.) The intention was to create a landscape that contributes actively to our understanding of the architecture, rather than being just a neutral backdrop. For the most part, the intention was brilliantly realized.

There is, however, a huge exception -- the three-acre central garden in the ravine between the library and the museum. This was designed (over Meier's objections) by California artist Robert Irwin. It is a fascinating, rather aggressive affair of parterre-like plantings and a zigzag of pathways that spill down the hill to end in a three-ring maze of water and plants. All by its lonesome Irwin's garden would give people reason to tram up the hill. Whether it and Meier's architecture grow together over time -- as dissimilar things so often do -- remains to be seen.

In the big picture, that is a relatively minor question. In his charming memoir, "Building the Getty," Meier states that he set out to design a complex that echoed the harmonious, processional spaces of classical Western architecture, that reflected the "openness, warmth and ease" of Southern California, and that responded to the topography and the "clear, golden light." Despite obstacles but with lots of help, he did it. CAPTION: Its prominent name, not to mention its promontory, have made the Getty complex a source of endless fascination in Los Angeles. CAPTION: The curvy exterior of the restaurant pavilion faces north toward the Santa Monica Mountains. CAPTION: Inside the Getty: Treasures such as Correggio's "Head of Christ," left. CAPTION: Architect Richard Meier designed an imposing entrance to the Getty Museum, right, and spacious and inviting atria to greet visitors who ve climbed the stairs, above. One of its skylighted galleries, top right, houses 19th-century paintings.