A Thoughtful Place by the Sea

Three views of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute


With two large and significant projects, Louis Kahn had more than one opportunity to craft a plan for a complex network of laboratories. The first was his commission to design the Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania (1957-1965). A striking set of buildings involving multiple towering uprights interspersed with stacks of windowed cubes, this project was much praised. The noted architectural historian, Vincent Scully, described it as “one of the greatest buildings of modern times.” Despite the accolades the building received, those who pursue research in these laboratories often find the spaces within them less than conducive to their work. Budget cuts affecting materials and fixtures played a role, as did Kahn’s less than satisfactory engagement with the department heads and scientists who would eventually populate the building.

The second project was much more successful and remains an iconic example of Louis Kahn’s genius for handling materials in relation to a setting. It is the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California (1959-1965). Built to house a research institute for his client Jonas Salk (who is credited with the polio vaccine), Kahn collaborated with Salk to produce one of the most beautiful contexts for the advancement of scientific studies. When I learned that both men were the offspring of Russian Jewish emigres, and that Kahn had something of a mystical temperament, I felt affirmed in my regard for the spiritual and humanistic qualities of Kahn’s final design influenced by Salk.

Because God fully inhabits time and space {especially in the Incarnation}, we should not be surprised to see evidence in our own human creative work of how nature is infused with grace. In this respect, Kahn’s attention to the importance of aesthetic beauty, in a work environment created for biological researchers, stands out. I.M. Pei, a master architect and admirer of Kahn, spoke of the spirituality evident to him within the masterpiece represented by the Salk Institute buildings.

A lay understanding of biomedical research often includes an assumption that people engaged in such pursuits are narrowly focused on lab projects involving minute detail at the expense of attention to the world around them. It is therefore presumed that such projects involve elaborate technical equipment, controlled artificial lighting and other highly regulated laboratory conditions. If there is merit to these assumptions about what may be common conditions for laboratory research, how uplifting it is to see the buildings Kahn provided for those who work at the Salk Institute. His design envisioned that every lead scientist at Salk would have a private study with a generously sized window facing the Pacific Ocean. The predominant use of poured concrete as a building material is carefully balanced with the use of wood. In addition, the concrete was mixed with volcanic ash, giving it a warm appearance, while the attractive weather-resistant wood chosen for the cladding of the ‘window wall assemblies’ is teak. Throughout, access to natural light from the outside graces this set of buildings, just as it does most of Kahn’s work.

The central plaza between the buildings is surely the ‘heart’ of the project, as it was finally structurally realized. The Salk Institute’s inviting central plaza reminds me of the grand piazza in front of the basilica of San Marco in Venice. Each one of these places is so much more than ‘a negative space’ formed by a wide gap between buildings, which provides a movement corridor from one place to another as well as a sight line to the water beyond. Each plaza is ‘a positive space’ formed for gathering and lingering, for meeting with others, and thus for interaction and creativity. These plazas prompt us to be here, rather than simply let us go there. As Louis Kahn put it, “Architecture is the thoughtful making of space.”

And a thoughtful place it is, where Kahn has provided an evocative space for rest and reflection. Generously sized marble benches allow opportunities for people to pause for contemplation and creative imagining.The private spaces formed by the individual study rooms are counterpointed by the public space of the central plaza over which those study rooms look. Through the plaza, a stream-like linear fountain runs the length of this gathering space toward the horizon and the sea. It suggests at least an unconscious association with the biblical idea of the river of the water of life – an apt symbol for an institute dedicated to biological research.

A memorable video exists of the architect’s son, who was 11 at the time of his father’s death. He can be seen on his ‘pilgrimage’ visit to Salk, in-line skating back and forth over the linear fountain and plaza stones, perhaps as a living metaphor for his gradual reconnection -heart to heart- with his father through Louis Kahn’s beautiful buildings.


Notes: A moving introduction to the life and work of Louis Kahn is provided by the documentary made by his son, Nathaniel Kahn, My Architect: A Son’s Journey (nominated for an Academy Award, and available on DVD). The personal testimonies to Kahn offered by fellow architects (e.g., I.M. Pei) within this video are compelling. I found the Louis Kahn quote about the “thoughtful making of space” in Matthew Frederick’s informative book, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. The biblical theme of the river of life can be found in Revelation 22, based on imagery present in the book of Ezekiel (in chapter 47) and Zechariah (14:8). An excellent Getty Center video exists providing insight concerning conservation issues related to the Salk Institute wooden window wall assemblies  as well as other preservation challenges (click here for a link).

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