A Bay Area commuter approaching Terra Linda from US 101 will notice something strange just east of the freeway in San Rafael. A futuristic, robin egg blue spaceship emerges majestically from the expansive landscape, then transforms into a massive structure that is dwarfed only by the two valleys it spans. This unusual and eyecatching building, the Marin County Civic Center, was nominated in early 2015 for the UNESCO World Heritage List and is best known as Frank Lloyd Wright’s final and largest public project. But to science-fiction fans the striking structure carries a different meaning, as it was an inspiration to both George Lucas in Star Wars, as well as science fiction director Andrew Niccol.
The Marin County Civic Center is staggering in both size and shape. It consists of a 580-foot long Administration Building connected to an 880-foot long Hall of Justice by a spaceship-like rotunda which houses the Marin County Public Library. The complex also incorporates a post office, the Veterans Auditorium, a cafeteria, and an annexed jail. It is difficult today to imagine such a bizarre yet innovative building, with its pink stucco facades, blue domes and giant atriums, being built in pastoral Marin County before its completion in 1962.
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When the Marin County decided to hire Frank Lloyd Wright for this utopian civic complex, his high profile came with a hefty price tag and a commission that exceeded that of all other architects. Many of Marin County’s government officials protested that his fee was too high and raised concerns over his ambiguous political reputation, going so far as to call him “communist” and “un-American”. Despite the controversy, the 90 year old architect continued to work on the only government building of his career. Wright famously said, “In Marin County you have one of the most beautiful landscapes I have seen, and I am proud to make the civic buildings of this county characteristic of the beauty of the county.” His dedication to the natural landscape can be seen in every aspect of the design, from the way the blue domes mirror the sky, to the building’s circular form inspired by the curving shape of the hills and valleys.
Wright worked relentlessly on the Marin County Civic Center project until he died in 1959 – just six months before the construction crew broke ground. He never saw the building he had designed, but after his death, his widow Olgivanna Wright helped finish the details of the building, including choosing the famous blue color for the domes, with a thought that that material would weather well over time. With the Marin County Civic center Frank Lloyd Wright was committed to the idea of building an “architecture for democracy”. He wrote:
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.
The controversy surrounding the center’s design and construction may have been what inspired writers and directors to take a closer look at the building, but it is clearly the futuristic design itself that made it a popular choice for science-fiction film inspiration. Large sections of George Lucas’ first feature THX 1138 were filmed on the center’s grounds, and views of both the building’s interior and exterior were featured in the sci-fi flick Gattaca.
Meanwhile Star Wars fans will immediately recognize the gentle blue domes and scalloped roofs in the otherworldly architecture of Naboo. George Lucas admitted he was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Civic Center design, when it came time to designing Naboo.
So did Frank Lloyd Wright aspire for his last work to transcend not only time but whole universes as well? We will never know; the enigmatic architect passed away before he ever saw it finished. But with a career spanning seventy years and architectural masterpieces touted as “the best all-time work of American architecture,” it is clear that the force was strong with him.
+ Marin County Civic Center
+ Frank Lloyd Wright