Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Marin County Civic Center (Photo:

Last week, on our way to Napa Valley and the redwoods, Sandra and I stopped at the Marin County Civic Center one of the ten Wright buildings that I wrote about this past summer in the comparative section of "Key Works of Modern American Architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright," a serial nomination of ten buildings that will eventually be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had been to Marin once before but this visit,coming right after the essay, was special . 
Marin County Civic Center facade with automobile arch (Photo:

Marin County Civic Center was difficult to write about in that it was completed under the supervision of Aaron Green, in 1964, five years after Wright's death and it seemed both odd in certain respects and virtually without comparison as a building type.  At 1460 feet in length the building is composed of two parts of unequal height (three and four stories per the two segments) owing to its adjustment to the hilly terrain. Furthermore it is "bent" at a kind of pivot point marked by a domed library, a pool, and a spire. 

Spire, garden and library rotonda (Photo: J. Quinan)

The building was widely criticized upon completion for the tiers of non-structural segmental arches that screen balconies on the sides of the building and for decorative flourishes (see facade detail above) that were wildly at odds with the rigorous Cartesian geometries of late modernism (as in Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building, for instance). Wright wanted a golden roof that would have handsomely blended the building into the brownish landscape but this was denied by his clients and, following his death, Mrs. Wright made the decision to have the roof painted sky blue.
Entrance area (source unavailable)

The genius of the building lies in its experiential qualities:  Because the site was originally rural and remote Wright conceived the building entirely around automobile access. There are three large segmental arched openings at ground level through which one drives to parking lots beyond and under which it is possible to drop off passengers. These arched openings are truly cavernous but in a way that is humanized, even gendered. Overhead, between the arches,  the building opens up into an elongated three story skylit atrium reminiscent of the Larkin Building's light court but curvilinear and fluid -- not a commercial enterprise but a place for the citizens of Marin County (or anyone) to come for a driver's or marriage license, a court case, or a records search. 
Interior of administration building (photo: J. Quinan)

Unlike the Larkin Building, or the Guggenheim Museum for that matter, here Wright made each of the balcony levels narrower as the floors rise so that people moving about can interact vertically as well as laterally. The scale is entirely human and the colors are a warm buff and Cherokee red with decorative accents in a golden hue.
Garden (photo: J. Quinan)

In a world of pompous classical courthouses and city halls the Marin County Civic Center is easy to be in, more country club than civic monument, and futuristic enough to warrant a role in the  1997 film "Gattaca."

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