Designed at the same time as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the curving Marin County Civic buildings echo the surrounding landscape.
The Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1957–62.
"We will never have a culture of our own until we have an architecture of our own. An architecture of our own does not mean something that is ours by the way of our own tastes. It is something that we have knowledge concerning. We will have it only when we know what constitutes a good building and 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.
Here is a crucial opportunity to open the eyes not of Marin County alone, but of the entire country, to what officials gathering together might themselves do to broaden and beautify human lives." Frank Lloyd Wright
The selection of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1957 to design the Civic Center was controversial. The Civic Center project was Wright's largest public project, and encompassed an entire campus of civic structures. The post office was the only federal government project of Wright's career. Wright's design borrowed ideas and forms from Wright's Broadacre City concept, first published in 1932.
The principal structure consists of a three story 580-foot (180 m) long Administration Building and a four story 880-foot (270 m) long Hall of Justice at a lower elevation, joined at an 120 degree angle at an 80-foot (24 m) diameter rotunda. The Hall of Justice spans a small valley, arching twice over an access road and a parking area, while the Administration Building spans a smaller ravine. Both structures are entered through archways on their lower levels. The long principal facades are marked by shallow non-structural arches of decreasing span with each story. The arches, which are framed in metal with a stucco appliqué, overlap slightly at the lower level.
On the intermediate level they appear to stand on short slender gold-anodized columns, and on the top level they become round openings with gold railings directly under the deep roof overhang. The railings themselves have a circular pattern. The bright blue roof is itself patterned with arched cut-outs and raised circular patterns The building wings are arranged as a barrel vault shape on either side of the central galley, asymmetrically disposed. Interior guardrails at the atrium are solid stucco with no metal elements. Entrances are controlled by vertical grills of gold-anodized metal with rounded tops and bottoms, rather than doors. The eaves are embellished with an arched fascia with small gold balls inset in each arch, a pattern repeated in the atria.
The rotunda on the central hill houses the county library and a central cafeteria. Its 172-foot (52 m) gold spire was meant to house a radio transmitter, as well as the boiler plant's chimney. The interiors are arranged around open atria or "malls" as Wright called them, which allow natural light into the space. Originally open to the sky, the malls were later covered with skylights designed by William Wesley Peters. Interior spaces featured glass walls to allow light to penetrate from the exterior and the atrium, and to follow through on Wright's philosophy of maximum openness of government activities.
Wright's concept envisioned a gold-colored roof, which proved to be impossible to obtain in a long-lasting material. After Wright's death, Olgivanna Wright chose a bright blue color that would weather well, gaining a softer color with age. The color choice, together with the pink stucco walls, was initially controversial, causing the building to become known as "Big Pink." The only large gold element is the spire at the rotunda.
The Post Office building is a one-story elliptical building near the entrance to the complex. Its facade repeats the arch motif, with circular embellishments on its canopy. The interior features and elliptical lobby.
The nearby Veterans Auditorium was designed by the Taliesin Associated Architects and was completed in 1971 in a manner compatible with the main complex. The auditorium was designed for use by the county fair with a combination of flat-floor exhibition space and tiered seating spaces, using a compromise plan devised by Wesley Peters, George Izenour and Aaron Green. The main hall seats 1960 in an amphitheater arrangement. A separate Showcase Theater seats 300, and the exhibition hall can accommodate up 2000 patrons.
The original Hall of Justice design incorporated the Marin County Jail. As the jail outgrew its space a number of proposals were advanced for a new facility adjoining the Civic Center. A new, mostly underground jail was completed in 1994 in the hilltop immediately to the west of the Hall of Justice, designed by AECOM with 222 cells and 363 beds. The jail connects to the Hall of Justice by an underground link. The design concept was originally suggested by Aaron Green. The final design was reached after unsuitable underground and above-ground designs were rejected in the 1980s. Natural lighting of interior spaces is provided by skylit light wells over the common space of each of six pods.
Parts of the buildings exterior and interior were featured in the 1997 film 'Gattaca'. While George Lucas drew elements from the Civic Centers architecture and featured them in his design for the set of Naboo in Star Wars.