When theory and fact fail to intersect

If you are a student of architecture, or if you have ever visited Marin County, or if you simply like Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, you may know that the Marin County Civic Center was Wright’s last commission — so last, in fact, that the ground breaking happened in 1960, after Wright had already died.

Wright, true to his architectural creed, aspired to design a building that harmonized with, rather than dominated, the landscaping.  He certainly achieved this with the Civic Center, which nestles into the rolling California hills, rather than towering ominously above those same hills.  The building is set so low to the ground that, if you’re driving by on the freeway and you’re not at precisely the right elevation, you may not even notice it.

Wright achieved this “oneness” with the hills by elongating the building so that it stretches out over three city blocks.  Depending on a given hill’s elevation, some of the building’s wings are four stories, some two, and some still remain a mystery to me.

The building’s interior is like a giant atrium, since a vast domed sun roof runs the length of every wing.  The building’s details — the door ways, windows, grate covers, elevators, etc. — are exquisite examples of architecture from the late 1950s and early 1960s.  This is the design reality to which TV’s Mad Men aspires.

The Civic Center is an absolutely beautiful building — and it is also a completely awful building.  Navigating this snake-like structure as it wends its way through the hills is exhausting and confusing.  Finding stairways and elevators is an effort, and you’re never really sure where you’re going to be once you exit those same stairways and elevators.  If you head off in the wrong direction, or enter in the wrong wing, you may find yourself hustling this way and that down endless hallways as you desperately try to reach your goal.  If you’re not a regular at the Superior Court (which is housed in the Civic Center), you better give yourself a lot of lead time should you have a hearing or trial, because you are going to get lost.

Not only will you get lost, you will get hot.  This isn’t just because you’re running madly down endless hallways.  It’s also because those beautiful domed glass ceilings, the ones that let in that lovely sunlight, turn the place into a giant hothouse.  It’s tropical in the Civic Center.

Those same domes also add to the mileage you’ll put on.  You see, in order for the light to penetrate the lower levels, there are long openings in the middle of the upper floors.  It’s rather like a suburban shopping mall, which is also built atrium style.  This architecture means shoppers cannot cross laterally from one side of the mall to another.  Instead, even if their destination is seconds as the crow lies, they have to walk down the length of the atrium on one side, and up its length on the other side, to get to their destination.  It’s a pain for the shoppers, but merchants love it because it forces the shoppers to pass by their windows — and one never knows what might capture the eye of someone on a forced march.

What’s good for a mall, though, is lousy for a civic building.  I don’t want to have to hike miles to cross a hallway.  I’m in good shape, but the combination of tropical heat and, inevitably, time pressure, means that these indirect approaches to an easily seen objective are nothing more than frustrating.

I’m actually venting about the civic center for a reason, and it’s not just because I spent a ridiculous amount time there today running civic oriented errands.  The building put me forcibly in mind of progressive policies.

Progressive policies look so lovely on paper and sound so lovely in theory.  They promise to end poverty, end hunger, care for all the children, give everyone health care and, oh-by-the-way, ensure world peace.

As this exquisitely imagined ideological structure is being built, everyone oohs and aahs over its wonders.  The details are so great.  The good will so immense.  The goals so admirable.  And once it’s built, it may have a certain superficial charm.

But these dreamy structures, the ones built to suit ideological goals, don’t function so well.  They put enormous, and sometimes impossible, strains on the people dealing with them.  They are inefficient, ineffectual and, periodically downright cruel.  They are also invariably expensive, not only to design and to build, but to maintain.  (Incidentally, it’s no secret that at least some of Wright’s buildings are famous for being maintenance disasters, that impose vast expenses and sometimes overwhelming burdens on their owners.)

How much better to have a structure that looks at what is and what needs to be, and then goes about trying to implement what needs to be in the most practical and humane way possible.  There’s no reason for it to be ugly; instead, it can be quite beautiful but it is, always, practical and functional.  This is a building that, while it does not aspire to starry ideological heights, actually works, leaving the people within it happy and satisfied that their needs are met.

(And no, I don’t know what it says about my mind that I draw political lessons from buildings.)

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  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    “This is a building that, while it does not aspire to starry ideological heights, actually works, leaving the people within it happy and satisfied that their needs are met.”
    Given two blades of the same likeness, shape, and form, the blade that is sharp enough to cut through a man’s neck with one blow is more beautiful than the duller blade.
    That is the truth of beauty behind function.

  • 11B40

    Groupthink never sleeps.
    The truth and one man is the majority.
    Privates know what’s on this side of the hill.  Sergeants have to know what’s on the other side.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com David Foster

    “Progressive” thinking and modern architecture….a common thread is a desire to imaging *from scratch* rather than to evolve and incrementally improve. See “The Story of a Software Failure” for a related story in the field of software development. This particular project, which has been called (surely with some exaggeration) “the greatest debacle in the history of organized work,” was the FAA/IBM effort to restructure the air traffic control system from the ground up:
    An engineer working on the project made the architectural analogy explicit:
    You’re living in a modest house and you notice the refrigerator deteriorating. The ice sometimes melts, and the door isn’t flush, and the repairman comes out, it seems, once a month. Then you notice it’s bulky and doesn’t save energy, and you’ve seen those new ones at Sears. The first thing you do is look into some land a couple of states over, combined with several other houses of similar personality. Then you get I M Pei and some of the other great architects and hold a design run-off…

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    (And no, I don’t know what it says about my mind that I draw political lessons from buildings.)
    Probably what it says of me that when I think of art, I think of this.
    The Democrats like to think that it doesn’t matter what the substance is. All that matters is how things look on the surface. If you look like you are racist because the Dems said you were racist, and it looked like you were racist from a superficial glance at the evidence, then it’s no difference than if you are racist on the inside.
    In reality, it doesn’t matter what the external features of the blade are. What matters is that the blade will retain its edge and structure rather than breaking and chipping in mortal combat. Maybe that’s why the Left fears physical violence, eh? They know their stuff won’t handle the real heat.

  • Leah

    Frank Lloyd Wright did not design building for people to live in. He was the consummate ‘progressive’. It was all about his buildings fitting his aesthetics and to hell with the people who were actually supposed to live in those houses.
    Also, he dropped out of engineering school, he decided to wear this as a badge of honor, but in reality, most of his homes leak, are poorly built or are falling apart since the materials he used started failing as soon as the homes were built.
    Large civic buildings are different since an engineering team had to be involved before such large constructions could go forward.
    So yes, lovely ideas, brought about some interesting changes in modern architecture, but like most liberal ideas – they really don’t work in the real world.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    It is not just that they don’t work in the real world. It is about costs. Instead of doing the work right so that people down the line won’t pay the cost of failure, Leftists rig the system so that they benefit on the backs of the future.
    Instead of planning right and doing things well, so that future maintenance is made easier, they skim money off the top, save their wealth and creature comforts, and if that means people in the future must suffer for it, then so be it. So sayeth the New Aristocracy.
    American Materialism comes from Hollywood. And Hollywood’s Materialism developed from the spoiled self-righteousness of class ideology.

  • JKB

    This reminds me of what I assume is an urban myth.  Seems UNOLS, the university research fleet, brought together scientists from many universities to come up with the ultimate design for an oceanographic research vessels.  Oceanographers, marine biologists, marine chemists and climate researchers met and haggled until they had completed the design.  Only then did they invite in the marine superintendents, port engineers, masters and chief engineers to marvel at their accomplishment.  So with great fanfare the Ph.Ds laid out their design pointing out the spacious and convenient labs, computer rooms, and quite well appointed scientific berthing.  But the presentation was interrupted by a tentative chief marine engineer who asked, “Uhm, where’s the engineroom?”

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com Ymarsakar

    “Uhm, where’s the engineroom?”
    Won’t need one. We’ll have dolphins to pull us.
    Yeah, enslaved dolphins. The answer of tyrants to how to get free stuff.

  • richard diamond

    Great article Book. You missed one of your other callings as an architectural  critic. If I had never seen it, I would have seen it.

  • Charles Martel

    Wright’s building is referred to by locals as “Big Pink,” in honor of its coral-colored walls, topped by a distinctive and memorable blue tile roof.

    Everything that Book has to say about it is true—it’s an energy sieve that, even as it renders Wright’s fantasy in hard concrete and steel, forgets human needs and comfort.

    Still…….the building has its attractions. On Thursday I’m going to meet for lunch in Big Pink’s cafeteria with a bookkeeper friend of mine who has a wicked sense of humor and a great conservative mind. We’re meeting there not because the cafeteria food is great (it’s passable) but because we dig the architecture. For all its many flaws, Big Pink is still an entertaining confection. Wright was a master of small embellishments—sconces, banisters, signage—that can make a building memorable.

    That said, Big Pink is an arrogance that should have been built, paid for and suffered through by a private company. To ask taxpayers, even in a Sugar Mountain like Marin, to pay for its exorbitant inefficiences and operating costs is a bit much.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Ah yes, the perfect symbol of progressivism and Hollywood alike: aesthetically beautiful on the outside and rotting from the inside out. I noticed much of the same when we were house hunting years back. The modern architectural statements were abysmally wasteful and uncomfortable places to live.
    Same with all these beautifully diagrammed housing projects designed in the LBJ 60s that decayed into hell-holes. The dreams were always trumped by reality.

  • http://poliwogspoliblog@blogspot.com poliwog

    Falling Water is indeed a good example of progressivism.  While living in PA, I saw an interview with one of the owners who had been a little girl when it was built.  They hated that house.  Wright had listened to what they wanted, which was a lovely view out the window of their favorite picnic spot (a large rock near a stream), nodded his head, took their money, and destroyed the very things they liked best about the property. To my mind, that seems to be almost exactly what the left is doing right now. 

  • http://poliwogspoliblog@blogspot.com poliwog

    (And no, I don’t know what it says about my mind that I draw political lessons from buildings.)

    One of my late husbands favorite classes was a History of Architecture elective.  One thing the professor stressed was how an eras popular building styles gave a viewer clues to that time’s philosophy.  So it simply shows you have a very good mind that can put a lot of little pieces into a logical picture, which is no surprise to your readers. 

  • kali

    I grew up in Marin, and have fond memories of the Civic Center, simply for the fact the library was there (is it still?) It also provided my very first experience of a metal detector,  thanks to the Angela Davis trial.

  • Spartacus

    I hadn’t intended to do any blogmenting today, but I am really quite certain that I will never have quite such an invitation again to share this particular anecdote.  It is a slightly more cheerful story about political insights regarding one of Wright’s buildings.  Details on Wikipedia are slightly different from what I remember from the lecture hall many moons ago, but because my architecture prof was a complete guru; because Wikipedia isn’t always correct; and mostly because I am just stubborn, you’re going to get the version I remember hearing.
    Fallingwater, Wright’s last house, already introduced by poliwog.  Wright designed a giant, cantilevered deck that hung out in mid-air over the river.  The owner, Edgar Kaufman Sr., was profoundly nervous about a deck that had nothing underneath, and ordered a support to be built to hold it up.  Wright was absolutely furious at having his design second-guessed, but then, he wasn’t the one writing the checks.  At a party given to celebrate the completion of the house, Wright and Kaufman were chatting out on the deck.  Kaufman said, “You must admit, now that all is said and done, that it just feels better knowing that there’s something down there holding up the deck.”  Wright did not give an answer, but proceeded to lead Kaufman downstairs, under the deck, and showed him with great amusement that in fact, the support was an inch or two shy of the bottom of the deck, and not in contact.  Kaufman could be assured that in the event of a collapse of the cantilever, the deck would not have far to fall, but Wright had also made his point, that no support from the bottom was necessary.
    Ironically, in this story, if one thinks about it a bit, Wright gets to play the conservative, saying, “Don’t worry, this will work without any meddling from you.  It’s a tried-and-tested design whose performance characteristics are well known.  All you need to do is just stand there, and refrain from getting the ‘Do something!’ disease.  Some things in this world you can simply enjoy, without taking credit for making them work.”  I remember a time several years ago, after a modest tax cut initiative had been approved by the voters against the will of our “betters,” the air was filled with hysterical wails, moans and dire predictions of crumbling roads and starving children.  At about the same time, I noticed, the state DOT was busy tearing up the grass and trees for miles and miles along the sides of two major highways and replacing them with… grass and trees in nice, straight lines.  Apparently, landscaping wasn’t the part of the budget that got mortally hit, and those trees couldn’t be counted on to just grow on their own, like they always had previously.  Kinda like we need a Messiah in the White House to make the oceans recede… and then come back in again… about every 13 hours.  Oh, and don’t forget to centrally plan the economy… can’t have the proles driving that with individual decisions.  And get them all onto buses; no telling where they’ll go if you let them drive cars.  And make sure some of those buses stop at the local hospital in case some of those who are socially useful need some medical treatment which we deem to be cost-effective.
    Control freaks, with no understanding of, or faith in, the efficiency, predicability, freedom, and beauty of well-ordered chaos.

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  • Mike Devx

    Spartacus ends with this in #15:
    > Control freaks, with no understanding of, or faith in, the efficiency, predicability, freedom, and beauty of well-ordered chaos.

    For the left, it *is* all about control, isn’t it?  That’s why they distrust the invisible hand in the free market – there’s no obvious control!  Government is not in control! Disaster, disaster!  There MUST BE CONTROL!!!

  • http://OgBlog.net Earl

    So glad to read your cogitations on this subject.
    I’ve loved the look of the Marin Civic Center since it was built…but am also very aware of Wright’s failures in the engineering (and personal) areas of life.
    For those who want to see what a cock-up his most famous building was, check out this documentary on the “saving” (I’d say more like “reconstruction”) of Fallingwater.
    For those who’ve never seen the Civic Center, have a look at Gattica – it was filmed there.