Friday, July 8, 2016

A Visit to Gattaca

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Suspended garden terrace off cafeteria. Photo ©Darren Bradley

When driving north over the Golden Gate Bridge, leaving San Francisco, one is quickly greeted with the charming seaside town of Sausalito, the dramatic scenery of Muir Woods, and quaint little towns like Mill Valley and Fairfax. So arriving at the small city of San Rafael, it may seem a bit incongruous to find the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation (from the film "Gattaca") perched on the hillside. 

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View from the western side of the complex. 

In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, Gattaca was a film by director Andrew Niccol, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. 

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Scene from the film "Gattaca" with Uma Thurman in the corridors of the Marin County Civic Center.

It was a science fiction film, set in the "near future". It was about how corporations and society at large had come to discriminate against people who inferior genetic profiles. 

Ethan Hawke training to become a space cadet in "Gattaca". 

It seems very plausible, except that in the film's version of the future, people have a much better sense of style and architecture than in our own world. 

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Scene from the film "Gattaca" with employees of the corporation streaming into the main entrance of the Marin County Civic Center.

Of course, the building here is not actually the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. This building is the Marin County Civic Center, and it has served as the administrative center for Marin County since its construction was completed in 1962. 

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The building bridges over the roadway in several places. At the main entrance, you can look below to see the cars passing.
Photo ©Darren Bradley

The building is exceptional for many reasons - not least of which it was designed by celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright. FLLW died in 1959, so the architect never actually got to see it completed. But he did visit the site and conceived of the original plans. 

Scettrini Ranch, the bucolic site of the future Marin County Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, San Rafael, California, circa 1956. Image from the Harold Stockstad Slide Collection, Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library. 
Frank Lloyd Wright in his studio at Taliesin West, circa 1958. Harold Stockstad Slide Collection, Anne T. Kent California Room. Marin County Free Library. 
The front cover of the dedication brochure features a drawing of Frank Lloyd Wright's concept for the Marin County Civic Center. This brochure was issued to mark the dedication of the Administration Building,
on October 13, 1962.


Detail from an early scale model of the Marin County Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, San Rafael, California, circa 1958. Harold Stockstad Slide Collection, Anne T. Kent California Room. Marin County Free Library.

What's also incredible is that this is still a functioning administrative center, county courthouse, and city library. I often wonder if the people wandering about and coming here to defend themselves in court, pay a fine, buy a license, or borrow a book really appreciate how exceptional this place really is. 

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Atrium, courtyard, and corridor all at once. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Photo ©Darren Bradley

Even today, the building is breathtaking in both its scale and design. It's easy to understand how Niccol decided to use it as the set for his Gattaca Corporation. 

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Photo ©Darren Bradley
It's also widely believed that Marin County resident George Lucas was inspired by this building for the planet Naboo from his Star Wars films (the sucky ones). 

Marin County Civic Center on the left; city of Theed on the planet Naboo from Star Wars on the left. To me, the actual building appears more futuristic than the Star Wars version.

Speaking of films, this is not the first Frank Lloyd Wright building to be used as a set for a science fiction film. FLLW's Ennis House made an appearance as Deckard's apartment in the film Blade Runner. 

Scene from the film "Blade Runner". Deckard (Harrison Ford) in his apartment,
which is the Ennis House by Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles. 

And more recently, Game of Thrones has gotten into the act with the interiors of the giant pyramid palace in the city of Meereen, directly inspired by the same Ennis House by FLLW.

If I had a pad like that, I wouldn't bother conquering Westeros, personally. Scene from Game of Thrones. Palace of Meereen.

But back to the Marin County Civic Center. My first exposure to this building was through a photograph by Ezra Stoller that I saw many years ago in a magazine. At the time, I had no idea what the building was, but the image stayed with me. 

The iconic photo of the Marin County Civic Center by Ezra Stoller, taken shortly after it was built in 1962. 

Many years later, when I actually visited the building, I put two and two together and realized where I was, and that the photo was of the same place. It was a strange feeling to actually be standing in the same spot as where that famous Stoller photo was taken. 

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Couldn't resist doing my own riff on Mr. Stoller's photo. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Of course, you can't please everybody. Someone on left a comment on a photo that I posted of this place on my Instragram account, writing "Was there. Felt density of sadness and loneliness under the occasional sunny day of the Bay Area. Quite unremarkable building by FLW." Haters gonna hate, I guess. 

These days, if I'm anywhere near the Bay Area, I try to make a point of setting aside a couple of hours to wander around this place. I would highly recommend you try to stop if you have the opportunity. 

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OK, one more... Photo ©Darren Bradley


SiArtist said...

Great blog post, Derren. BTW- one of the influences for Planet Naboo was the "Plaza De Espana" in Seville, Spain. Been there, amazing place too!

Unknown said...

Great, thanks!

Unknown said...

Magnificent pics and what a great building by Wright.The road beneath the atrium running through the two hugd arches is pure theatre!

Laura said...

I live near the Civic Center and never knew it was the setting for some movies, thanks for sharing! I'm more familiar with it as where the best farmer's market is on Sundays and where I go pay my property taxes twice a year LOL.

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