Marin County Civic Center:
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
"We know that the good building is not the one that hurts the landscape, but is one that makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before that building was built. In Marin County you have one of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen, and I am proud to make the buildings of this County characteristic of the beauty of the County."
-Frank Lloyd Wright
The Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Civic Center is a national- and state-designated historic landmark. Wright's 770th commission, the Civic Center is the last and one of the most important works by this internationally acclaimed architect who has been described as "one of the most creative architectural geniuses of all time" and "the most original architect the United States has ever produced." Frank Lloyd Wright died on April 9, 1959, at the age of 92, and did not see his vision completed. Taliesin Senior Architect Wesley Peters and San Francisco Bay Area Taliesin Architect Aaron Green directed the completion.
The Marin County Civic Center Administration and Hall of Justice buildings dramatically illustrate the kinship of Wright's architecture to the surrounding landscape. The long horizontal buildings gracefully link the crowns of three separate hills. The circular theme is evident throughout the complex. Materials throughout the Civic Center are simple. Floors are custom-colored composition tile. Walkways and stairs are terrazzo, and partitions are sheet rock. The barrel-arched roof is of pre-cast concrete. The roof is a blue that blends with the sky. Walls are sand beige. Basic construction is pre-cast, pre-stressed floor systems with combined steel and concrete vertical supports. Exterior balconies run down the outsides of both buildings. The decorative arches create a sense of rhythm, and are made of cement stucco on metal laths.
Gold spheres outline the entire interior and exterior rooflines. They create the effect of rhythmic unity and exemplify the Oriental influence Wright displayed in his work. They have been likened to raindrops and called, by some, a string of pearls.
Wright first used many features now considered commonplace in these buildings. Atriums run down the center of each building. They widen as they rise from ground floor level to the fourth floor, to create an illusion of upward spiraling ramps. This also creates narrower walkways on the upper floors, where there is less foot traffic. Elevators and stairs link one floor to another. Atrium plantings provide employees and visitors with the pleasing prospect of either looking inward to the planted, sky-lit malls or outward to green trees and hills.
The building complex abounds with detail. Elaborate grillwork, accents, and appliqués all follow the "flow of pattern" carefully orchestrated by Wright. Glass and panel partitions separate the walkways around the atrium from office spaces to create an airy, spacious effect. Art exhibits on the first and third floors contribute to the aesthetic harmony of the interior. The central architectural focus for the building is the 80-foot diameter dome with its 172-foot, slender gold spire. The spire creates a visual punctuation mark that breaks the horizontality of the two buildings. It was originally designed to serve as an exhaust outlet for the furnace and as a radio tower, which was precluded by new technology.
On the ground floor entrance to the Administration Building is the plaque containing the red "FLLW" insignia square that designates the Marin County Civic Center as an official Frank Lloyd Wright building. The four-story administration wing, completed in 1962, is 584 feet long. Office bays are 26 feet wide on one side and 40 feet on the other. The structure houses the county's administrative, financial and community services departments and the county's human resources department as well as the Marin County Library branch and administration offices. All offices in the administration wing have at least one source of natural light, either from outside surface windows of the building or from the skylights in the mall.
The Civic Center Site Model on the first floor of the Administration Building shows Frank Lloyd Wright's original plan for the entire complex. It includes some buildings that were not constructed. The skylights over the malls were not part of the original plan, but were added later for protection from the weather.
Board of Supervisors Chambers and Lobby Art Gallery are on the third floor. The Marin Arts Council designs monthly art exhibits for this lobby and the gallery area on the first floor. The Board Chambers are composed of one semi-circular room that can be divided by a folding partition into two soundproof chambers for the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission. The flexibility of Wright's design accommodates changing needs for public participation.
Outside the chambers, is the Scenic Overlook (also known as the Supervisors' Deck). The columns here are reminiscent of origami, again showing the Japanese influence in Wright's architecture. This is another vantage point for a view of the roofline and an up-close look at the spire. The Marin County Civic Center Branch Library is contained in the fourth floor area under the 80-foot diameter dome. In it Wright made very early use of indirect lighting, and radiating placement of stacks, for easy accessibility. Adjacent to the library is the Anne T. Kent California History Room, which is a non-circulating research facility that preserves items of historic importance including an extensive collection of information about Frank Lloyd Wright and the Marin Civic Center.
The Conservation Garden at the far south end of the fourth floor includes the hill on which Wright first viewed the site and stated, "I'll bridge these hills with graceful arches..." It offers a spectacular vantage point to view the dramatic roofline.
Hall Of Justice
The Hall of Justice, completed in 1969, is 880 feet long and the bays on both sides of the building are over 40 feet wide. Unique concepts for courtrooms, jury rooms, judges' chambers and general judicial space are incorporated into its design. This building houses the courts and the offices for the Sheriff and District Attorney as well as the Civic Center Cafe.
The fountain-garden patio area exemplifies Wright's belief that work environments should be places of beauty. The design of the pond conveys the impression of blending into infinity. The pond uses re-circulated water and camouflages the heating and cooling systems. It is also home to a family of ducks that return here each spring.
The garden offers an excellent vantage point for viewing the spire with its Oriental influence. The adjacent Civic Center Cafe is open to the public and provides healthy California cuisine. Subdued, indirect light creates a warm and relaxed atmosphere in this area. The lovely view is framed by the architectural grillwork. Use of the Civic Center's circular theme is evident throughout the lobby and courtrooms in Hall of Justice. The circular courtrooms represented the first break in more than 100 years with the old courtroom design and they have been copied elsewhere in this country and abroad. Spectators sit in curved rows, and curved tables serve the attorneys and their clients. A lectern in the middle of the well permits the judge and jurors a clear view of attorneys and witnesses.
Aaron Green, FAIA, suggested the concept and site for the underground County Jail, completed in 1994, to complement Wright's original buildings' design. The jail is embedded into the hillside at the end of the Hall of Justice wing. This location makes it possible to transport prisoners into the court areas through a tunnel. (There is a scale model of his plan on the fourth floor of the Administration Building outside the branch library.)