A Frank Lloyd Wright gem in Northern California

The Marin County Civic Center was Wright's last major design, and a rare government building for the master architect. The complex feels like it should be in a sci-fi movie, which of course, it has been.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
In 1962, the Marin County Civic Center opened its doors, just a few miles north of San Francisco. Designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright--who died before it was completed--the futuristic building was a prime example of organic architecture, in which a building blends in naturally with its surroundings. This is a view of the Civic Center from the south. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN RAFAEL, Calif.--It looks like a futuristic spaceship, resplendent with sand beige walls, a sky-blue roof, and a 172-foot-tall gold tower, but it's not quite that sci-fi. Still, the Marin County Civic Center definitely has an out-of-this-world pedigree: It was designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and was the last major design of his career.

For anyone who lives in Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, or who has driven through, the Civic Center may well be a familiar sight. Located just east of U.S. Highway 101, the beautiful low-slung complex stands out because of its utterly unique design. It features three rows of arches that decrease dramatically in size from the first to the second floors, and from the second to the third floors, and one row of circles-within-circles. And then there's that blue roof.

Even for a Wright building, this one stands out. And Wright himself never even got to see it: He died while it was still in the planning stages. Yet it was--and still is--the only completed government building the master architect ever designed. And it was built on 140 acres of Marin County land--the same Marin County that is now among the most expensive counties in the country--that were purchased in 1956 for just $561,000. That would barely buy a small condo here now.

Frank Lloyd Wright's final masterpiece (photos)

See all photos

For years I've been driving by the Civic Center, and had been in it a few times. But as part of my ongoing Road Trip at Home series, I decided it was time to really check out the great building, especially since I'd just done a story and photo package on Wright's world-famous Fallingwater, in Mill Run, Penn.

Today, 10 Wright buildings are being considered for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Among them are Fallingwater, Taliesin West--his Arizona home and architecture school--and the Marin Civic Center.

So on Tuesday, I found myself in the hands of Avery Goldman, a former physician from nearby Mill Valley, who these days is one of the docents who regularly ferry visitors around the Civic Center. One of Goldman's first questions? Did I remember the sci-fi thriller "Gattaca," and if so, who was the film's star?

I thought for a moment, and came up with Ethan Hawke. Goldman shook his head. Was it Uma Thurman? Nope. Jude Law? Not him, either. In fact, continued Goldman, the real star of the movie was the Civic Center itself, and indeed, many of the exterior shots used in the 1997 feature were of the Civic Center--and no wonder. It really could be from the future, or some Heinlein vision of it from the 1950s, anyway.

Pont de Gard
Though there's no definitive support for such a theory, Goldman said he's of the strong opinion that the main visual design Wright used for the Civic Center's facade--the three levels of archways--was based on the famous Roman aqueduct called the Pont de Gard, near Nimes, in France. To be sure, that aqueduct features three rows of arches, the top one of which is significantly smaller than the others.

The facade of the Marin County Civic Center, in San Rafael, California. It features three levels of arches in decreasing size in front of each story's windows, and a fourth level of circles within circles on the top. A road goes under the bottom arch. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Wright himself seems never to have let on where he got the idea for the facade from. But he definitely made it well known that he wanted the Civic Center to be a prime example of his long-held view that organic architecture was the best way to build a building. As he told a Marin crowd in 1957, before the Board of Supervisors had approved his plan, but after he'd been selected to design the building, the county would have an architecture all its 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."

Wright's design is actually quite simple. The entire main Civic Center complex is comprised of two long buildings, each with two sides that surround a skylight-covered mall--the administration building and the Hall of Justice--connected by an 80 foot dome. The administration building, finished in 1962, is 584 feet long, and its office bays are 26 feet wide on one side and 40 feet wide on the other. The Hall of Justice, which was completed in 1969, features 40 foot wide office bays on both sides, and is 80 feet long. The dome is home to the Marin County Free Library and the county Board of Supervisors.

"Materials throughout the Civic Center are simple," according to a history of the complex compiled by the county. "Floors are custom-colored composition tile, walkways and stairs are terrazzo, and partitions are sheetrock. The barrel-arch roof is of pre-cast concrete....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."

As part of Wright's commitment to organic architecture, the buildings were supposed to mirror the colors of the nearby hills that the architect saw when he visited for the first time, in July, 1957. That meant beige walls and a gold roof. But "after his death, the color was changed to [sky] blue as no gold paint could be found which would stand up to the elements," according to the county history.

Wright was known to stick to themes in his designs, and was fond of geometric shapes. So for the Civic Center, the circle is the theme. Everywhere you look in the complex, there are circles, half-circles, and other round shapes. From the archways to the circles on the balconies, to the half-cirlces of the pay phones, to door handles, water fountains, signs, and much more, it is clear which shape dominates.

And why? It seems to be because of what Wright saw on his very first visit to the site--after he'd already accepted the commission--in 1957: A group of four rolling hills and a round lagoon amidst the sleepy Marin landscape. According to Goldman, Wright drove a Jeep to the top of the southern-most of the hills, and thought for a little while about what he would design.

"After 20 minutes, he threw up his arms," Goldman said, and proclaimed, "'I know exactly what to do with this site. I will bridge these hills with graceful arches and bold building upon the arches.' Which he did."

Indeed, looking at the Civic Center from just about any angle, that's what you see. And while there were a few changes to the design--for example, the 90-year-old Wright originally envisioned that the interior mall would be open to the sky, something that wasn't practical in the wet Marin winters or the hot summers--what you see today is remarkably similar to his original design presentation.

Because of his death, Wright's surrogates, specifically William Wesley Peters, the senior architect at Wright's Taliesin Associated Architects, and Aaron Green, whom Goldman called Wright's West Coast associate, had to complete the project.

But both men stayed true to Wright's design, which has been referred to as a skyscraper lying on its side. Wright was no fan of tall buildings--his tallest-ever was just 19 stories--and to hear Goldman explain it, a skyscraper on its side makes a lot of sense. After all, the two main buildings are more than 1,400 feet long, and the only real nod to height is the gold spire that breaks up the horizontal shape of the buildings and acts as a big exclamation point.

Hall of Justice
While the administration building houses Marin County's supervisors, and its financial, and public works departments, the Hall of Justice is home to its civil and criminal courtrooms.

And befitting a Wright-designed building, the courtrooms subsequently became the model for those in other parts of the country, and even the world. And that's in spite of the fact that Wright died before the designs for the chambers were finished.

The Hall of Justice features a series of round courtrooms like this one. Though Wright began the design for the courtrooms, he died before they were completed and his West Coast associate Aaron Green finished the designs. Afterwards, a Ford Foundation-funded study done by the American Institute of Architects and the American Bar Association determined that the Wright/Green design featured elements that should be included in all courtrooms, such as that all participants should be in the round. Since then, the design has been copied around the world. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Indeed, Green was the one to complete the courtroom designs--essentially round rooms where all the participants can look at each other. And that design, which was later supported by a joint study done by the American Institute of Architects and the American Bar Association, has been emulated throughout the U.S. and even in other countries, such as Australia, Goldman said.

In a complex that exudes a sense of an idealized future, the courtrooms may be the tip of the iceberg. They are completely round, and feature round, or rounded furniture, as well as beautiful circular light fixtures filled to brimming with round lights. The rooms feel intimate in a way that other courtrooms I've been in haven't.

And the furniture in the courtrooms has its own interesting history. According to Goldman, it was all built at nearby San Quentin state prison, which had a catalog public building customers could order from.

All in all, it's kind of strange to see this building, which has such history, and yet which feels like it should be in a science-fiction novel, supporting regular day-to-day business. But that's exactly what's happening. It is still the Marin County Civic Center, a fitting building for one of the most wealthy, and creative regions of the country.

And if you happen to be in the area and want to visit, feel free to do so. The Civic Center is open daily and offers a self-guided tour, as well as guided tours each Wednesday from Goldman and a group of other docents. If you are lucky enough to get a tour from the former doctor, tell him I said hello.