Constructed between 1983 and 1997, the museum is perched on a rise in the Santa Monica Mountains with panoramic views of the city skyline, the ocean, and the San Bernardino and the San Gabriel mountains. It is sited on a 110-acre parcel surrounded by a 600-acre preserve of native oaks and sycamores and accessed by a cable-pulled funicular which rises 900 feet up the hillside. Architect Richard Meier designed the travertine complex with a master plan stipulating that nineteen of the campus’s 24 acres should be developed as gardens. Emmet L. Wemple & Associates led by Denis Kurutz created a plan for the entire site in 1987 including the entrances and a 50-acre slope with drought-tolerant plants and 6,000 oak trees. In 1992 landscape architect Laurie Olin, with Fong & Associates and Dan Kiley as consultants, designed the gardens surrounding the museum.
At the heart of the complex is the site-specific, sculptural Central Garden designed by artist Robert Irwin with gardener Jim Duggan and landscape architects Spurlock Poirier. Completed in 1997, this 134,000-square-foot garden is accessed by a spiraling sycamore-lined walk that crosses a grass-edged stream, culminating in a plaza with three tree-like metal arbors draped in bougainvillea. The Cactus Garden at the South Promontory was also part of the original design, created by Dennis McGlade of OLIN. The museum complex later incorporated the Fran and Ray Stark Sculpture Garden, a tripartite garden design by OLIN and Richard Meier & Partners Architects completed in 2007.