Marin Blog · Marin Arts and Culture Collection

Wright's Masterpiece: Marin Civic Center Magic

Posted in Blogging Marin on Wednesday, September 20, 2023 by MCVB Staff

Calling all architecture enthusiasts and intrepid travelers!

Venture to the enchanting city of San Rafael, California, and prepare to be captivated by the Marin Civic Center—an architectural masterpiece that stands as a testament to the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America's most celebrated architects.

Elegantly designed and steeped in historical significance, this iconic structure was among the final grand projects to grace Wright's illustrious career, adding an extra layer of allure to its already formidable charm.

Commissioned in 1957 and lovingly brought to life in 1962, just three years after Wright's passing, the Marin Civic Center is a must-see gem, offering a glimpse into the brilliance and enduring legacy of this visionary artist.

Keep reading to learn more about Wright and the history of his last masterpiece.

Who Is Frank Lloyd Wright?

Frank Lloyd Wright was born on June 8, 1867, in Richland Center, Wisconsin, and his creative journey made a significant impact in the field of design and innovation. Most importantly, he introduced the concept of "organic architecture," where buildings blend seamlessly with their surroundings.

Marin Civic Center is one example of Wright’s philosophy. Before designing it, Wright said, “We know that a good building is not the one that hurts the landscape, but 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.”

What Is the Marin Civic Center?

Wright’s only realized project for a government entity, Marin Civic Center, consists of two buildings: the Marin County Civic Center Administration and the Hall of Justice. 

Architectural Features of Marin's Civic Center

The elongated horizontal structures of the Civic Center gracefully connect the crests of three distinct hills, and the circular motif is evident across the complex. The Center's materials embrace simplicity—floors adorned with custom-colored composition tiles, terrazzo walkways, stairs, and partitions of sheet rock.

The signature barrel-arched roof is made of pre-cast concrete, its blue hue blending seamlessly with the sky, while sand beige walls complement the surroundings. The foundation rests on pre-cast, pre-stressed floor systems supported by a blend of steel and concrete. Exterior balconies are characterized by decorative arches crafted from cement stucco on metal laths.

The interior and exterior rooflines are defined by golden spheres resembling raindrops or a string of pearls. Central atriums span each building, expanding as they ascend from ground level to the fourth floor, forming a sense of spiraling upward ramps.

Detail is abundant throughout the Civic Center, featuring intricate grillwork, accents, and appliqués that follow a carefully orchestrated "flow of pattern." Glass and panel partitions separate atrium walkways from office spaces, creating an airy, spacious ambiance. Explore even more detail with a docent-led tour every Friday at 10:30am.

Art exhibitions on the first and third floors such as the Bartolini Gallery add to the interior's aesthetic harmony. The architectural centerpiece is the 80-foot diameter dome crowned by a slender, 172-foot gold spire. This spire punctuates the skyline, breaking the buildings' horizontal expanse.

The Administration Building

The Administration Building, completed in 1962, boasts a four-story, 584-foot-long administrative wing. Offices range from 26 to 40 feet in width and house various county departments, including administration, finance, community services, and human resources, as well as the Marin County Library branch.

The building prioritizes natural light, with offices featuring surface windows or skylights. The Scenic Overlook, also known as the Supervisors' Deck, offers a vantage point for viewing the unique roofline and spire. The Board of Supervisors Chambers, Lobby Art Gallery, and Marin Arts Council-designed monthly art exhibits reside on the third floor.


The Hall of Justice

The Hall of Justice, completed in 1969, stretches 880 feet and integrates innovative concepts for courtrooms, jury rooms, and general judicial spaces. Housing the courts, Sheriff's and District Attorney's offices, and the Civic Center Cafe, the building emphasizes aesthetics in work environments. The pond-garden patio area exemplifies this belief, portraying a sense of blending into infinity and housing a family of ducks.

Circular themes echo throughout the Civic Center's design, as evident in the lobby and courtrooms. The underground County Jail, designed by Aaron Green and completed in 1994, complements the original vision and is embedded into the hillside for seamless integration.


Interesting Facts about Marin's Civic Center

Fact #1

The Marin County Civic Center has earned a nomination for the UNESCO World Heritage List. Other Wright-designed buildings on the list include Unity Temple, Frederick C. Robie House, Taliesin, Hollyhock House, Fallingwater, Herbert & Katherin Jacobs House, Taliesin West, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Price Tower.

Fact #2

Did you know that Frank Lloyd Wright's smallest architectural piece was a doghouse? Well, he designed it in response to a letter written by Jim Berger, a 12-year-old boy whose family lived in a Wright-designed home.

In 2010, Jim and Eric Berger recreated the doghouse based on original plans for a documentary showcasing Wright's work. The doghouse now resides on permanent display at the Marin County Civic Center!

Fact #3

Significant portions of George Lucas' debut film, THX 1138, were filmed on the Civic Center's premises, with glimpses of both the building's interiors and exteriors featured in the science fiction movie Gattaca.

Fact #4

George Lucas himself acknowledged the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic Civic Center design when conceiving the city architecture on planet Naboo in Star Wars.


Marin's Civic Center is a masterpiece of architectural design that is worth checking out.

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