American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s 770th and final commission, the Marin County Civic Center encapsulates many of his defining architectural philosophies from his lifetime of work – referencing the utopian cohesion of his early Broadacre City scheme (1932) and the curved atria of the later Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. As his largest public project, it’s also the closest one can get to a FLW-designed town.
Located just north of San Francisco in downtown San Rafael, the Marin County Civic Center spans two meandering valleys, echoing the organic curves and horizontality of the landscape through its architecture. Its earthquake resistant, concrete and steel design features innovative cantilevers, decorative detailing, daylight-filled interiors, long walkways and sightlines, deep overhangs, layered arches, scalloped balconies and remarkable blue roofs.
Built 1957–62, the campus centralised 13 previously dispersed Marin County departments. Three main interlocking buildings form the central plan of the campus; the Administration Building, the Hall of Justice, and the domed Library with its golden spire. Each building has a blue roof, which was specified to be gold-coloured in Wright's original concept, however after his death in 1959 mid-way through the project, his wife Olgivanna Wright instead selected a bright blue that would prove more durable and weather better with age.
Gold-coloured paint features prominently inside the buildings though, on doors and building details, promoting a reflective interior lightness also highlighted through the architectural design. Generous atria – originally designed to be open air, then covered with barrel-vaulted skylights for practicality – bring daylight deep into the plan, while glass interior walls allow light to travel horizontally.
The campus was finally fully completed in 1976 – after the addition of further buildings including the Veterans Memorial Auditorium (1971, designed by the Taliesin Associated Architects), the Exhibit Hall (1976) and the circular Post Office, Wright’s only US government commission.
The visionary concept and ambition of Marin County Civic Center has earned it praise across the worlds of architecture, heritage and even popular culture. It is a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark, and is currently being considered for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Plus it has inspired some great cinematic works of sci-fi – George Lucas used it as the set for his first feature-length film, THX 1138 (1971), and based the set of Naboo in Star Wars on it; and it completes the brooding contemplation of the near future in Gattaca (1997).
Find it on our Modernist San Francisco Map – edited by Mitchell Schwarzer, with original photography by Jason Woods. Buy your copy here.