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Marin Civic Center

Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin Civic Center is a Tour de Force
Frank Lloyd Wright’s last building, the Marin County Civic Center, is a tour de force that almost didn’t happen.

Once you step into the pink stucco-walled storied structure, you realize that you are not only in a hallowed building (conceived and constructed when Lloyd Wright was 90 years old), but one that was ahead of its time.

Distinctive scalloped balconies are everywhere (in keeping with how much Lloyd Wright loved nature), and one of the especially notable characteristics when you look at the interiors, are the open atria.

Wright used to refer to them as, “malls,” says my tour guide, Libby Garrison, who also remarked that he wanted people to see guests driving in, as cars were new at the time.

“He started it in 1957, and currently in his career, it is the only government building that he ever built,” she continues. The government buildings in Marin county were dispersed into 13 different buildings across the county, and it was very difficult to facilitate meetings meaningfully among workers. What was once a dairy center became the Civic Center, built on government-purchased land.

The government originally interviewed several architectural firms who submitted the proposals, but none of the really had the magic they were looking for. “Every single one of the original proposals was designed to flatten the landscape,” says Garrison. At the time that they were considering proposals, the magazine "House Beautiful" had a cover story on Frank Lloyd Wright; they decided to invite him to be the architect of the civic center. But initially he said, “No, I’m Frank Lloyd Wright, and I don’t compete…if you want me, hire me.”

The architect’s philosophy was for a civic center to not just be a government center, but to invite employees to spend a long time here, to have a picnic, and go see a show and really enjoy themselves, not just be another meeting center and building. He even designed a children’s island in the middle of the lagoon of the civic center; an unmistakable spire stands 172 feet tall.

Beautiful arches are found everywhere in the building: it is a testament to much he loved geometry, and in this sense, it is definitely a departure from his other works. He would say, “happy workers make better workers,” and wanted employees to have lunch outside and enjoy the outdoors.

Visitors can see a great Hall of Justice; a five-story jail which housed inmates was also part of the structure, sunken into the hillside. Frank Lloyd never saw the project completed; his successor took over the reins when he died.

The building is also an excellent example of “organic architecture,”—building the structure into the landscape, thereby blurring the lines between outside and inside.

Japanese influences are on this building too, after his Imperial Hotel there had withstood seismic effects of the earthquake.

In this sense, this building is a tour de force in every sense of the phrase.
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