Just north of the Golden Gate Bridge you’ll find Marin County, which until 1937 when the bridge was complete was a relatively isolated region of the bay area. Once the bridge connected the city to the county people began moving there quickly. This created a need for new civic facilities in the county seat of San Rafael instead of the dozen or so small buildings scattered around the town.
One of the Board of Supervisors was a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. While he was in Berkley giving a lecture in 1957, she took a group of leaders from the county to court Mr. Wright for the project. When he visited the site for the new government facilities among rolling green hills of San Rafael, he said “I’ll bridge these hills with graceful arches.”
This highly controversial project was one of Wright’s biggest commissions during his more than 70 years as an architect. It was also the only real opportunity he had to interpret his design philosophy of Design for Democracy in the form of a government building.
He accepted this commission when he was 90 years old and knew he probably wouldn’t be around to finish it, so he ensured some of his best padawans were close at hand through the whole process including William Wesley Peters and Aaron Green. They would complete the buildings after he died in 1959 and do more work for the county in the future.
The building is beautiful and quite graceful. Some say it reminds them of ancient European aqueducts while others say it is like a skyscraper laying on the ground. Mr. Wright said:
“…We know that the good building is not the 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.”
He housed all of the county’s departments in the main building that is split into two wings, the administration wing and the Hall of Justice. They join in the middle under a great flat dome that houses the Board of Supervisors and the library on top. Mr. Wright believed learning was more important than government, so the library should be on top.
Since it is still an active government complex, you can visit Marin County Civic Center during regular business hours. Most of the time you will have to take yourself on a self-guided tour, but on Wednesday mornings you can get a docent-led tour. That’s what I did.
The tour begins in the cafeteria where you’ll find a small exhibit about the building and Mr. Wright. Just outside this room you’ll find an outdoor garden space with a fountain. The cafeteria is just near the center of the building, so the garden is also just outside the center dome just one floor below.
Our guide led us to the model of the complex built by Wright and his apprentices. It shows the original scope of the project, which included much more than the three buildings that were completed. The original plans called for county fairgrounds, an amphitheater, a handicap accessible office building in addition to the main building, auditorium and post office (his only federal design) that were completed.
We also visited the Board of Supervisors room, which is round, has an accordion door to divide it for smaller meeting spaces and is designed to put the elected officials at the same level as the people who put them there. Out of this room is a large terrace deck that is above the garden and has the massive spire (ventilation shaft) rising from the end.
Just outside the Board of Supervisors is a small gallery space. Wright thought that as a government building that is meant to serve the people there should be a place for residents to display art.
Next we went upstairs to the library that is the top of the dome. It is a large, open circular room with stacks going all around the edge. The intent of this design was for the librarians to see everything happening in the stacks from the circulation desk.
Because we were on a tour, we got to then go out on the balcony that lines this floor. It is accessible from all of the offices that line that side of the building. There is a similar balcony on the other side.
You will notice throughout the building all of the circles. He used them in the building shape, façade ornamentation, furnishings, signage, rooms, and much more.
One highlight mentioned by our docent is that the spaces inside are almost all adjustable meaning it is one of the earliest designs and uses of modular office systems. If they needed to change the configurations the walls could be moved and spaces divided. It was also designed to withstand earthquakes with breakpoints built in throughout the structure to give the building room to move if the earth shakes.
Mr. Wright loved bringing light into his buildings. There is a series of long oval light wells throughout the building, the interior halls are built around them each floor getting successively narrower. In some of the wells are lush gardens to bring life into the building. They are crowned with arched Plexiglas.
Don’t forget to visit the post office and auditorium while you’re there. Both follow the same graceful design and are distinctly Wright. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go in the auditorium when I visited because Johnny Mathis was setting up for his show that night. The box office attendant showed me a picture that almost made me want to buy a ticket just to be inside.
I could honestly go on and on about this innovative design and architecture, but instead I’ll let you go and experience it for yourself. Or you can just look at my pictures and read some books about it. I highly recommend a visit! Anyway, it is beautiful, organic, and designed for democracy. It is one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces. Perhaps that’s why this National Historic Landmark is included in a nomination with 10 other Wright-designed buildings to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.