Marin County Civic Center
A National Historic District
Marin County, CA
Designated an NHL: 07/17/91
The Administration Building/Hall of Justice complex of the Marin County Civic Center is the last major work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the greatest 20th century American Architect. The civic center complex is the largest constructed public project of Wright's career and the only one for a governmental jurisdiction. Also located on the grounds of the civic center is a U.S. Post Office, which is the only federal commission ever executed by Wright, who, ironically, was the first architect to be represented on a postage stamp. The civic center is one of the finest expressions of "organic architecture", a concept that Wright labeled as his own. The history of the Marin County Civic Center also contributes importantly to the broad pattern of the evolution of the form of government buildings in the United States.
The Marin County Civic Center complex is composed of two long wings set at a 120 degree angle to each other and hinged together by a rotunda with a shallow dome backed by a 172-foot, triangular tower. The form of this complex embodies Wright's belief in democratic values that place human services above the regulatory instruments of government. This belief is expressed by the visual dominance of the Administration wing, which, although shorter than the Hall of Justice wing faces the main access road so that most of the cars pass through its single broad arch on the way to the main parking lot and other parts of the grounds. Beneath the dome, which is the pivotal element of the plan, is the county library; the adjacent tower was originally meant to transmit radio programs. Thus, the two branches of government meet at the place of dissemination of knowledge and information.
For Wright, the location of this governmental complex in a suburban area endowed with gentle hills and valleys and removed from any dense urban center, was the perfect setting for the partial realization of Broadacre City, his American Utopia. A drawing published in The Living City, 1958, captioned "Typical street view at the Civic Center", shows part of a structure that echoes the Marin County Civic Center complex in its fenestration, use of arches, and drive-through archway on the ground level. The drawing was one in a last series of Broadacre City studies that collected into one setting many of Wright's favorite works as, for example, the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which also appears in the distance in this drawing.
Finally, Wright's unerring ability to marry buildings to their sites here led to one of his most striking solutions. In having the two building wings bridge the valleys between three hills, he also recalled revered works of classical antiquity such as the Roman acqueduct at the Pont du Card. This composition also confirmed his statement, "The good building is ... .one that makes the landscape more beautiful than it was before ..." The rhythmic, low-lying structure complements the landscape and offers a serenely human vision devoid of the hierarchical expression of power so recognizable in traditional 19th and early 20th century centers of civic authority.