A closer look at how the Getty Center protects its collection from the threat of a fire

A closer look at how the Getty Center protects its collection from the threat of a fire
The exterior of the Getty Center in Los Angeles. Courtesy Flickr Commons | Photo: Alan Lutz.
Must see  -   Architecture

The devastation that was caused by a 2018 fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro was a bleak reminder to museums, galleries, and research facilities, alike, of the dangers of a fire. For that reason, museums and galleries around the world have taken on major steps over the years to safeguard their collections. As California is no stranger to some of nature’s most intense disasters, so it’s no surprise that the Getty Center, based in LA, is essentially a fire-proof fortress, so we’re taking a closer look.

Nestled amongst the Santa Monica Mountains, the Getty Center sits on a hilltop about 900 feet above sea level. It took nearly a decade to build the museum, which was completed in 1997, but the Getty Center has become like a beacon and on a sunny California day, it might seem untouchable. In many ways, though, it is; the museum was constructed to be infallible during the event of a disaster, particularly when the threat of a fire is at the door.

In a 2019 interview, Lisa Lapin, vice president of communication for the Gretty Trust, told The Guardian that fire prevention is on their minds 24/7 and it shows. Nearly every inch of the 24-acre (10-hectare) LA institution is designed with fire preventative measures.

The building is made of travertine, a type of limestone that is a naturally more flame-resistant material. In total, 300,000 travertine blocks make up the exterior of the LA museum. Enforcing the exterior of the museum is its roof, which is covered with crushed stones that make for an inhospitable environment for any embers – a major threat when it comes to wildfires – that land there.

25 million pounds of steel reinforce the limestone structure and the interior walls are made of concrete offering strength and, you guessed it, more fire protection. Each of the Getty’s galleries are a self-contained module that can be sealed to keep anyone or anything from entering them. To protect artworks, and any people trapped in the museum, from smoke damage, the Getty Center has specially designed air systems that recirculate and clean air from inside the building so that outside air is not needed.

Fire precautions don’t stop with the building itself, either. The grounds of the Getty Center offer another layer of protection when wildfires come close. Groundskeepers maintain the Getty Center gardens, ensuring that dead or dying plants and brush are removed so that they don’t become fuel for a fire. Below the surface of the museum’s grounds lay an intricate series of sprinklers ready for use. With supply from a one-million-gallon tank, the sprinklers can be turned on to saturate the landscape further deterring potential fire threats.

The museum is so well protected that it’s been used in recent years as an outpost for hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes that have threatened California. It also stores emergency rations in the case that people are stranded at the museum during a disaster.

The Getty Center is also built to withstand earthquakes and it utilises specially-built plinths that minimise the damage to standing artworks. In 1994, the Northridge Quake hit while the museum was under construction, it gave engineers the opportunity to access the site and they made changes to create a building more capable of withstanding such a natural disaster.

Over the years, the Getty Center has become a mainstay in the museum world for its collection, but it’s also a shining example of construction made to withstand the elements. It’s a major feat of architecture that boasts as many (albeit often hidden) jewels as the collection within.