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.)