In late January, the U.S. State Department announced that a single collection of 10 Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structures, diverse in both geography and typology, have been formally nominated for inclusion on the 1,007-site-strong UNESCO World Heritage List.

Needless to say, it’s a huge (package) deal as this is the first time that a work — in this case several works spread across seven states — of modern American architecture have been in the running for World Heritage status.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy notes that the 10 structures (originally 11 as it appears that the SC Johnson Administration Building got axed somewhere along the way) are the crème de la crème: “…the most iconic, fully realized and innovative of more than 400 existing works by Frank Lloyd Wright.” Remarks the Conservancy: “Each is a masterwork and together they show varied illustrations of 'organic architecture' in their abstraction of form, use of new technologies and masterful integration of space, materials and site.”

In addition to all being previously designated as National Historic Landmarks, the 10 nominated Wright buildings are all open, in some form or another, to the public whether it be seasonally, by appointment-only or through regularly scheduled tours. Some of the sites function as public museums. One, a certain spiral-shaped edifice on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is a museum. Another, the Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, reopened its doors for public tours earlier this month after being shuttered for six years during a much-needed restoration. (Nice timing on that one). Wright's most instantly recognizable private residence, Fallingwater, still manages to lure hundreds of thousands of visitors to middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania each year.

However, only one of these 10 World Heritage List-nominated structures was designed by the prolific proto-starchitect to be a truly public building — that is, a building designed and built strictly for civic purposes. In fact, the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California, is the only completed public structure designed by Wright. Finished in 1962, the center’s main administration building is also notable for being Wright’s final design. The project’s February 1960 groundbreaking ceremony took place nearly a near after Wright’s death. (He was commissioned in 1957 at the age of 90). Wright protégés Aaron Green and Wes Peters stepped in to make sure that the sprawling, sci-fi-tinged project reached completion.

The Marin County Civic Center also boasts bragging rights as the only Wright building to make a cameo appearance in a Dr. Dre music video. 

In a new video released hot on the tails of the Marin County Civic Center’s 55th anniversary, faircompanies joins Benjamin Berto, chief planner for Marin County, for a tour of the singular pink stucco-ed complex. As Berto explains in the video, drama shrouded the commission from the get-go. This wasn’t at all atypical for a Wright-designed structure — the man managed to stir up controversy throughout his storied career — although some of the infighting, name-calling and political jostling (this is a government building, after all) occurred posthumously. 

If Marin County Supervisor William Fusselman were to have gotten his way, Wright, whom Fusselman accused of being both too expensive to retain and a Communist sympathizer, another architect would have overseen the project. Fusselman and Wright publicly sparred during the project’s early developmental phases; after Wright died, Fusselman continued his attempts to derail the project.

However, the citizens of Marin dug Wright’s far-out design. And even after his death, Wright had a vocal champion in another supervisor, Vera Shultz. It was Shultz who, after reading about Wright-designed residences in House Beautiful magazine, first brought Wright into the fold when he wasn’t even on the initial shortlist for potential project architects. Before Wright was introduced by Shultz and subsequently hired, much to Fusselman’s chagrin, for what was to be his final commission, California-based modernist architect Richard Neutra was heavily favored by Marin County brass to secure the contract.

The administration building’s larger valley-spanning sibling, the Marin County Hall of Justice, was completed in 1969. The adjacent Veterans Auditorium — one of the venues where, in 1975, British rock star Peter Frampton “came alive” — was completed in 1971. The main building was designated a National Historic Landmark 20 years later, in 1991.

The sun-lit central atrium of the main administration building at the Marin County Civic Center (Karlis Dambrans/flickr)

The Marin County Civic Center: The only American governmental complex with a pink exterior? (Karlis Dambrans/flickr)

Said Wright himself of the Marin County Civic Center shortly before his death:

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.
Lots more on how the Marin County Civic Center interacts with the surrounding natural landscape in the above video. And if the structure, described by Berto as a “1,200-foot skyscraper laid on its side,” looks at all familiar, it might because of its associations with Marin County resident, director George Lucas. Several sequences in Lucas’ first film, 1971’s Robert Duvall-starring sci-fi flick, “THX 1138” were filmed on the grounds of the complex. The otherworldly appearance of the structure also served as the partial inspiration for the vernacular architecture of Naboo, home planet of Padme Amidala and Jar Jar Binks (ugh) in Lucas’ Star Wars universe.  

Click here for more information on public tours of this World Heritage List-nominated architectural masterpiece

Via [faircompanies], [Marin Magazine]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Marin County Civic Center: A California landmark that appears to be imported from another planet
Frank Lloyd Wright's final work is one of his 10 buildings nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.