Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect for the Marin County Civic Center
The opening of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937 signaled the end of Marin County’s relative isolation. With growth came the need for more efficient government services and facilities. In 1956, the Board of Supervisors authorized the purchase of the 140-acre Scettrini Ranch, north of San Rafael, for development of a civic center and county fairgrounds.
The site acquisition triggered a political battle between those who favored hiring a local architect with a traditional point of view and those who wanted a visionary architect with a global reputation – one who would design a building to represent an open and accessible government. Frank Lloyd Wright met the latter criteria. He was a brilliant and daring a thinker and a defender of the sovereignty of the individual in a dehumanizing society. The selection of Wright and support for the Civic Center project were championed by Vera Schultz, Marin County’s first woman supervisor, and Mary Summers, the County’s Planning Director.
On April 28, 1958, Wright’s plan for the Civic Center was approved by the Board of Supervisors by a four to one vote. Before his death on April 9, 1959, Frank Lloyd Wright completed concept drawings for all of the structures on the Civic Center campus, including the fairgrounds. The Marin County Civic Center was not only his last major design project but also the only government facility of his design that was ever built. Taliesin Senior Architect, William Wesley Peters and Bay Area architect, Aaron Green, both close associates of Frank Lloyd Wright, carried Wright’s vision for the Marin County Civic Center to completion after his death.
Both the Administration Building and the Hall of Justice, dramatically illustrate the kinship of Wright’s architecture to the surrounding landscape. In his address to the citizens of Marin County on July 30, 1957, Wright emphasized his theory of organic architecture. He stated that we will have an architecture of our own “only when we know that the good building is not 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.” The related groupings of long horizontal buildings which constitute the Civic Center and gracefully link several rolling hills stand as testament to Wright’s philosophy.
Materials throughout the Civic Center are simple. Floors are custom-colored composition tile, walkways and stairs are terrazzo, and partitions are sheetrock. The barrel-arch roof is of pre-cast concrete. The roofs are blue to reflect the color of the sky and the walls are sand beige. Frank Lloyd Wright had originally envisioned the roof to be gold, like the surrounding hills, but after his death the color was changed to blue as no gold paint could be found which would stand up to the elements.
Basic construction is of pre-cast, pre-stressed floor systems with combined steel and concrete vertical supports. Exterior balconies and internal walkways are cantilevered over the supports. Decorative arches are cement stucco on metal lath. The structures are highly segmented to accommodate expansion of building elements and to lessen the effect of earthquakes. The courts, or atriums, run down the center of each building. They widen as they rise from ground floor level to the top to create an illusion of upward spiraling ramps. Elevators and stairs link one floor to another.
The principal architectural focal points for the two-building complex are the 80-foot diameter dome, home to the Marin County Free Library and the Board of Supervisors, and the 172-foot slender gold tower which houses a 45-foot radio and T.V. antennae.
All of the furniture initially acquired for the Civic Center was designed after Wright’s death but bears his aesthetic influence. Desks, chairs and tables of rubbed walnut were built by the State prison system’s manufacturing operations to specifications provided by Wright’s associate, Aaron G. Green. The custom cabinet work found in some departments, such as front lobby counters, are also the result of this collaboration.
The landscaping makes use of native flora with minimum maintenance requirements, and the numerous windows running along both sides of the buildings frame the surrounding Marin County hills. Plantings in the many interior atriums enhance the connection between the building’s interior and exterior.
ADMINISTRATION BUILDING The four-story Administration Building, completed in the Fall of 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 physical development departments, as well as the Marin County Free Library and the Anne T. Kent California Room. All office spaces in the Administration Building have at least one source of natural light, either from outside surface windows or from the skylights in the mall. On the third floor a semi-circular room is divided, by means of a folding partition, into two sound-proof chambers for the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission.
HALL OF JUSTICE The Hall of Justice, completed in December 1969, is 880 feet long and the bays on both sides of the building are over 40 feet wide. In the courtrooms, spectators sit in curved rows and a curved table serves attorneys in jury trials. A lectern in the middle of the well permits judge and jurors a clear view of the witnesses and attorneys arguing a case. Their design represents a break with traditional courtroom design and has been emulated in other venues.
“The Marin County Hall of Justice became a turning point in the design of courts throughout the United States, and a new interest in the subject catalyzed from this design project. Oregon’s Judge William Fort and I sponsored a joint national committee linking the American Bar Association and the American Institute of Architects to promote more perceptive courtroom design. A Ford Foundation grant awarded to the committee resulted in an in-depth study titled The American Courthouse…. In judicial circles, the Marin Court facilities quickly became well known, and the designs of many courtrooms across the country have been strongly affected by the Marin prototype.” (Green, Aaron, An Architecture for Democracy: The Marin County Civic Center, 1990, pp. 96-7).