The Marin County Civic Center is Frank Lloyd Wright’s last major work and his only government building. It was designed in 1957–1958 and built posthumously in two stages, in 1960–1962 and 1966–1970, respectively. Located north of the town center of San Rafael along Highway 101, it is composed of three interconnected elements that bridge a series of hills. A domed rotunda, 80 feet in diameter, joins the 580-foot-long Administration Building on the south to the 880-foot-long Hall of Justice on the north at an angle of 140 degrees. The ends of the two, four-story arcaded wings emerge from hills in the form of aqueducts recalling the Roman Pont du Gard. Open archways between the hills provide entrance drives through the structure that give pedestrians access to the various offices, courtrooms, and other facilities arrayed around the skylit, galleria-like interior courts. A jail is located at the far end of the northern wing and a library takes pride of place under the dome in the center. The rotunda opens onto an outdoor garden terrace, linked to a cafeteria and marked by a 200-foot-high gold, anodized aluminum ventilation tower that signals the government structure from afar.
The history of the civic center goes back to 1952, when the Marin County Planning Commission sponsored a study of the county’s space needs. The following year the county’s Board of Supervisors appointed a committee to select a site that would not only provide space for government functions but also for a county fairgrounds. In 1956 the county purchased the 140-acre Scettrini family ranch and interviewed numerous architects. Unhappy with the prospects, Vera Schultz, one of the county commissioners, and planning director Mary Summers eventually contacted Wright through his local representative, Aaron Green. Wright met with some of the members of the Planning Commission in Berkeley in April 1957 and returned three months later to visit the site, at which time he was offered the commission. Stressing the character of the landscape as a key to his future design intention, he stated that “a good building is not one that hurts the landscape, but is one that makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before the building was built. In Marin County you have one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen, and I am proud to make the buildings of the county characteristic of the beauty of the county.”
Sketch plans were done by December 1957. Working with Green, his former apprentice, Wright’s office completed preliminary plans for the main civic center structure as well as the master plan for the entire site, including the county fairgrounds, by March of the following year. They were approved in April. A model, now in the rotunda, and detail drawings were produced by the fall of 1958. Based on these, working drawings were finished after Wright’s death in June 1959. While the civic center itself was ultimately built according to these plans, with some changes, the designs for the site as a whole were only followed in part. The lagoon, or lake, reveals what was intended by Wright to be the location of the county fair Exhibition Building (later replaced by the Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium designed by Wright’s successor firm, Taliesin Associated Architects) plus numerous recreational and social service facilities, including a senior citizens’ center, a swimming pool, an outdoor restaurant and amphitheater, and a children’s zoo and island. There was also to be a circular auditorium as well as buildings for the Public Welfare. Aside from the parking area between the civic center and the highway, none of the ancillary structures designed by Wright were built except for the U.S. Post Office on the access road from the south.
The steel frame and concrete structure is faced with a non-load-bearing screen wall of metal lath and cement plaster arches on the second and third stories and oculi on the upper floor, a sun-protection device for the glass-enclosed offices within. The curtain wall is stuccoed and painted beige to match the color of the surrounding hills. The concrete shells of the overhanging vaulted roofs of the long wings and dome of the rotunda, originally intended to be painted a similar earth tone, were sprayed with a blue plastic membrane instead. The details throughout, such as the arch supports and springing cups, the ornamental grilles, and the pendant balls of the roof fascias, are all made of gold anodized aluminum.
The apparent thinness and lightness of the civic center might lead one to believe that the building is all about image. While a very important part of its design, this represents only one aspect of the building’s significance. Like most of Wright’s architecture, the civic center is integrally related to its landscape setting and draws much of its force from that relationship. It grows out of the hills that terminate each end and bridges those in between. Its color responds to that of the surrounding landscape. The water in the circular pool of the rooftop garden is channeled through the retaining wall to cascade down to the lagoon leading out through Gallinas Creek to San Pablo Bay and thus directly connect the aqueduct-like Administration Building with its larger natural environment. The metaphor of the aqueduct, however, reinforces the building’s imagistic aspect. The reference to the Pont du Gard substantiates the civic center’s purpose as a structure devoted to government action and public works.
By housing the functions of county government in a structure intended to be symbolic of the building’s role in its regional setting, the Marin County Civic Center is an unprecedented design. It was a total rethinking of the traditional government center, bringing multiple separate buildings into a unified structure linked by an internal galleria. It was one of the first buildings designed to accommodate and celebrate the postwar automobile culture of the American suburb. It does this in several ways, by aligning itself with the highway it parallels, making the highway interchange its point of access, and incorporating the entrance drives and parking areas into the building’s overall design. Perhaps most significant, and telling, it establishes through its clear reference to the Pont du Gard an image that can be read in a glance by a passing motorist in a car going 60 miles per hour. Wright’s civic center looked both to the future and to the past at the same time. As a revival of the nineteenth-century arcade, or galleria-type space, for its interior form, it predates the malls that proliferated throughout suburbia in the United States and elsewhere over the succeeding decades, while its revival of the ancient Roman form of the aqueduct offers a startling premonition of postmodern historicism of the 1970s and 1980s.
Levine, Neil. The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Princeton: NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Radford, Evelyn Morris. The Bridge and the Building: The Art of Government and the Government of Art. Rev. ed. New York: Carlton Press, 1974.