Salk Institute: Architecture & Architect

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Salk Institute is one of the most lauded architectural structures of the second half of the 20th century. In this lesson, we'll explore this structure and learn about its architect, and see what makes the Salk Institute so inspiring.

Louis Kahn

Architecture should be inspirational. At least, that's what a lot of people believe. Architecture should serve to inspire, to awe, and to provoke an emotional experience. If there's one architect who would certainly have agreed with this sentiment, it was Louis Kahn. Kahn (1901-1974) was an American architect who worked in the monumental style and created works that are awe-inspiring. His structures are not simply large, they are landscapes that immersed the viewer within a precisely coordinated environment. His buildings were to architecture what cats are to posters: pure inspiration.

The Salk Institute

Louis Kahn developed a reputation for awe-inspiring monumental architecture throughout his career, but one structure in particular takes the cake. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is a research institute in La Jolla, a community of San Diego, California. It was founded by Dr. Jonas Salk, the guy who developed the polio vaccine. In 1959, Salk decided he wanted to build a magnificent research center. According to legend, all he asked for was a building ''worthy of a visit by Picasso''. He met Louis Kahn, and fell in love with the architect's theories about how architecture should represent a fusion of art and science. It was exactly the attitude Salk wanted built into his institute. Kahn started designing the structure in 1959, and it was completed in 1965.

The Salk Institute, as designed by Kahn, consists of two long structures of six stories each that face each other across a wide plaza. They are completely identical, creating a strong sense of symmetry across the entire site. This is accentuated by a single strip of running water that flows down the exact center of the plaza towards an open vista of the Pacific Ocean. The buildings are built from concrete, lead, steel, glass, and accented with teak wood, with the open plaza made of travertine marble. Two stories of each building had to be built underground due to zoning issues, so light wells provide natural light that glows as it bounces off of the concrete walls in these lower spaces. The concrete, which is the main material used in construction of the building, was not adorned with any sort of finishing. Overall, the site speaks of strength and stability, yet calm and tranquil reserve.

The Salk Institute

Design Motifs

This is a pretty big site, and we could talk about it for hours, but for now let's just go over some of the major design motifs that Kahn incorporated into the Salk Institute. One is the connection between architecture and landscape. The institute, which is meant to be a place of intellectual inspiration, is in a very inspiring location. Situated on the cliffs of La Jolla, it overlooks the ocean. The open courtyard provides a stunning view of the ocean, with the viewer's eye drawn that direction by the strip of flowing water. The wide, open courtyard echoes the vastness of the sky, which, when combined with the enormity of the ocean, is meant to remind the individual of how small we really are. It's a humbling effect, and plays to Kahn's interests with the measurability of physical scale versus the immeasurability of intellect and inspiration.

The design connects the structures to both the sea and the sky
Salk Institute

This ties in closely to another motif - that of the institute as an intellectual retreat. The rational symmetry and calm inspiration of the site are meant to work in harmony to create a space that encourages intellectual creativity. Kahn actually studied monasteries to help capture an almost spiritual sense of mental peace that would aid concentration and focus.

The Salk Institute is meant to feel like an intellectual retreat
Salk Institute

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