Frank Lloyd Wright's final masterpiece (photos)

The Marin County Civic Center, north of San Francisco, is Wright's only completed government building, and a beautiful fit to the landscape.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
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The classic view

SAN RAFAEL, California--You might remember it from the hit sci-fi film "Gattaca," or perhaps from George Lucas' 1971 thriller "THX 1138." Or if you're from or have visited the San Francisco Bay Area, then you might well have driven by it: Frank Lloyd Wright's last major design project--and his first-ever completed government building--the terrific Marin County Civic Center complex.

As part of his ongoing Road Trip at Home series, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman visited the masterpiece recently and got a chance to see up close and personal what has to be one of the most original and beautiful civic buildings in the country.

Although Wright died in 1959, he had already completed his plans for the Civic Center, which had been approved a year earlier. Although Wright wasn't originally one of the architects considered for the massive project, he was championed by Vera Shultz, Marin County's first-ever female supervisor. And after a series of political complications, the project's 584-foot-long administration building was completed in 1962. The second major element of the complex, the Hall of Justice, was finished in 1969.

The project, like so many others of Wright's, emphasized organic architecture, that is, designs that took advantage of natural surroundings, rather than ignoring--or destroying--them. As such, the Civic Center blends beautifully into the surroundings here, nestling perfectly in between four small hills on the 140-acre property--formerly known as the Secttrini Ranch--that Marin County had purchased for $561,000.

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Wright's concept

This is Wright's completed concept for the civic center. The ground was broken in February 1960, and the administration building (on the left side of the image) was finished in October 1962. The Hall of Justice, which is on the right side of the image, was finished in 1969.
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Organic architecture

Wright was a strong proponent of what he called "organic architecture," that of integrating a building into its natural surroundings, rather than having the building dominate the landscape. The Marin County Civic Center is a good example of organic architecture, as it blends very well into the area, tucked as it is between four small hills alongside US Route 101.

According to the County of Marin, Wright spoke to county residents on July 30, 1957, and said 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."

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The model

This was the working model for the civic center, and was built in 1958 at Wright's famous Taliesin, in Wisconsin.
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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.
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Balcony window

One of the top-level windows at the Marin County Civic Center, which looks out onto a balcony facing east. Wright liked to use themes in his designs, and for the Civic Center, the theme was circles, which can be found throughout the buildings.
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The main Civic Center design consists of two long buildings with an open-air mall in between. But Wright misunderstood the weather patterns in Marin County, and the idea of open-air was unworkable in the wet winter and the hot summer. As a result, a long skylight was added that covers the mall and the space above it.
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Throughout the Civic Center, visitors are treated to views of long, symmetrical hallways like this one, with office space on both sides. The main administration building is 584 feet long, and features office bays that are 26 feet wide on one side, and 40 feet wide on the other. This building is home to Marin County's administrative, physical development, and financial departments, and an 80-foot dome also houses the Marin County Free Library and the Board of Supervisors' quarters.
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Straight down the skylight

A view over the top of the Civic Center's administrative building along its skylight. Several sections of the skylight are on rails and when temperatures go above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, they open automatically as a means of letting in fresh air.
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Some of Andrew Niccol's 1997 science-fiction film "Gattaca" was filmed at the Civic Center. Though most of the interior scenes of the film, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Jude Law, were shot in Hollywood, many exterior scenes feature the building. One of the most experienced Civic Center docents, Avery Goldman, says the true "star" of "Gattaca" was the building itself. This is a screen shot from a trailer for the film, showing characters on the building's roof--the same spot as seen in the previous image.
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The interior of the Marin County Free Library, which is on the top floor of the 80-foot dome that is in between the Administrative building and the Hall of Justice. The library was modeled after one that Wright built at Florida Southern College, according to docent Avery Goldman. Throughout the library, the bookcases are on the perimeter, and lighting is designed to cast no shadows at reading level.
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One of the major ground-level arches covering the roadway that goes through the Administrative building.
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Production line pieces

Many construction elements of the Civic Center were mass produced on a production line in Petaluma, California, not far north of the Civic Center. The idea was that it would be more efficient to make the the pieces, like the half-circles seen here made from pre-cast concrete, in a factory and truck them in, rather than make them on site.
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From the south

A view of the Civic Center from a hillside to the south.
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Outdoor passageway

Nearly everywhere you look at the Civic Center, you can find beautiful design elements like are seen here: a stunning long passageway/balcony that is on the administration building's top level and which is adjacent to the windows looking out, and the aesthetically pleasing--but not structurally supporting--arches that make up a first layer beyond the windows.
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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.
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The spire

One of the main focal points of the Civic Center is its 172-foot-tall gold spire, which houses a 45-foot radio and television antenna. According to docent Avery Goldman, the spire masks 500 tons of mechanical equipment, including a chimney (the small square about halfway up the tower). A spire cleaning project a few years ago cost $600,000 to complete, Goldman said.
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From the east

A view of the Civic Center from the east.
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Gold spheres

Along each of the passageways, there are long rows of gold spheres, as seen here. Wright felt that the spheres covered what would have otherwise been long banal straight lines along each side of the passageways, and served a functional purpose as well: Over time, the building would settle, and the lines would no longer be straight. By using the spheres, Wright made it possible to cover up what would otherwise have been an aesthetic unpleasantness.
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Like the Guggenheim

Wright used a design element for each floor of the Civic Center that is similar to that of his Guggenheim museum in New York City.
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One of the wonderful elements of the Civic Center is the flourishing garden located all along the indoor mall of the administrative building.
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Looking down at road

Always a fan of incorporating the outside into his buildings, Wright found a way to bring the road into the Civic Center. Seen here looking down from the bridge that connects each of the two sides of the administrative building, the road is at the bottom.
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Up the stairs

Wright loved to make as many elements of his buildings visually pleasing, such as this stairway.
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A view of the Civic Center from the hilltop just to the south of the Administrative building. You can see both sides of the building, and the skylight that covers the indoor mall.
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Board of Supervisors

The Board of Supervisors' room, which is located inside the 80-foot dome. Usually, the room is split in half, with the supervisors on one side and the planning commission on the other. But when the board hosts large meetings, the wall that splits the room is hidden away.

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