Wednesday, January 5, 2011

At the Salk

Salk Institute (the classic view), 2010

If you read about a place and fantasize long enough about visiting it, there’s a good change it won’t live up to the mythic proportions you’ve envisioned.

Such was my experience with architect Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. Named for Jonas Salk—the scientist whose vaccine saved a lot of us from getting polio—and built by the March of Dimes, the Salk Institute is one of the nation’s leading scientific research centers in the fields of molecular biology, genetics, neurosciences and plant biology.

The Salk Institute is also a landmark of modern American architecture. Louis Kahn hit his professional stride late in his career, abandoning the popular International style of the time for designs that were described as “monumental” and “monolithic.” As one reviewer also put it, “They hide little about themselves.”

That’s a good description of the Salk Institute. When it was finished in 1965, its brutal simplicity was more appealing as a sculptural monument than as a strictly practical form-following-function structure.

Brutal might not be a kind word when referred to a building. Kahn’s Salk campus, however, inspires the term, what with all its straight lines, hard edges and sharp corners.

The Institute has a marvelous site just up from the cliffs of Torrey Pines. From its terrace one’s eye is drawn not to the short range of hills in the foreground, but to the vast horizon of the Pacific Ocean just beyond. It’s a majestic elevated platform that brings to mind the way the Trocadero in Paris overlooks the Eiffel Tower.

You enter the campus from the east. The buildings in the original complex are constructed of poured concrete that was purposely left unfinished. There are two large parallel six-story wings of research laboratories flanking a broad plaza paved with travertine marble and interrupted only by a narrow water run than flows from the eastern end of the plaza to pools at the western end. I’m sure people have wanted to add furniture, potted plants, maybe even umbrellas and color to the courtyard. Kahn, however, decreed that the space should be kept free of distraction to encourage greater thought. And so it has remained, an elegantly open and empty piano nobile with the open air and the wide Pacific to set your mind free.

Salk Institute (the north range), 2010

In front of each of the wings are stairway towers that contain offices, studio spaces and utilities. The buildings are punctuated by teak trim that, also by Kahn’s instructions, has never been sealed or stained. (Teak is a handsome and durable material for a coastal site. But if you ask me the teak in the Salk Institute could use a little sprucing up.)

Salk Institute - 75, 2010

I asked a few people who work at the Institute what it’s like to work in such a landmark. I wondered if the lab spaces are as inspiring as the exterior. Opinions ranged from those who are so focused on their work that they barely notice the setting to those who consider it such an honor to be at the Institute that they would never think of speaking poorly of it in public.

I hope these photographs will give you some idea of what the Salk Institute is like. Unfortunately, they also make clear how little I know about architectural photography. Please excuse the misleading perspectives. The buildings at the Salk Institute do indeed stand upright and level.

Salk Institute - 52, 2010

Salk Institute - 40, 2010


  1. Wow! another place I've never visited on my trips out that way--I'll have to put it on my list of things to check out in the future. Beautiful photos--it looks impressive. I didn't even realize it was there--thanks for the heads up.

  2. I've known about it, but have never visited.........a perfect example of how we don't always take advantage of treasures within our midst.