Louis Kahn designed the Salk Institute for Biological Studies to foster collaborative research. The buildings and landscape promote interaction between scientists in spaces of varying scale, from the modest porches outside the laboratories to the large plaza at the center of the complex. Kahn’s focus on scholarly cooperation stems from his own close partnership with Jonas Salk, who commissioned the Philadelphia-based architect to design the Salk Institute in 1959. Salk, who had invented the first safe and effective polio vaccine during the preceding decade, asked Kahn to create open and unobstructed laboratory spaces to enable researchers to work together.
Salk began planning the institution in 1957. The City of San Diego donated a 27-acre site on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in 1960, and construction was completed in 1966. The National Science Foundation and the March of Dimes Foundation provided much of the funding for the Salk Institute, which was dedicated to eradicating disease and prolonging human life.
Kahn organized the complex around a great plaza, which opens to the Pacific in the west and a grove of trees to the east. The north and south sides of the plaza are lined with two buildings housing laboratories and offices. The two structures are mirror images of each other, and their symmetry is marked by a narrow rill of water carved into the plaza’s travertine paving. This great courtyard represents the collective goals of the institution by symbolically gathering together the community of scientists into a shared communal space.
Kahn used different structural configurations to define spaces for varying programmatic functions. Large, hidden trusses enable the laboratories to be free of columns, so that the mass of the building does not impede discussion between researchers, while the smaller structural units facing the plaza house offices where scientists can seclude themselves for individual contemplation. The offices are stacked in ten towers whose intermediary floors comprise open porches outside the laboratories, to which researchers can retreat to engage in discussion in small groups.
The uninterrupted spatial expanses of the Salk Institute’s laboratories are made possible by the buildings’ innovative structural system, which consists of Vierendeel trusses located in one-story spaces in between the laboratory floors. This structural configuration provided “servant spaces,” which Kahn used to conceal the buildings’ utilities—especially the large ventilation ductwork—thereby leaving the laboratories free of obstructions. Kahn distinguished between a building’s “servant” and “served” spaces, with the former comprising the structural, mechanical, and other services, while the latter constituted the major programmatic spaces. The Salk Institute’s structural system was designed by engineer August Komendant, with whom Kahn had worked on the Richards Medical Research Building [PA-02-PH147.13] at the University of Pennsylvania. Both buildings employ Vierendeel trusses to create uninterrupted laboratories and offices (the “served” spaces), and in both cases, utilities run horizontally through the trusses to reinforce the distinction between served and servant spaces. Komendant would later help Kahn design the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
Kahn used more luxurious materials to identify important spaces, such as teak for the offices and travertine for the plaza, in contrast to the concrete structure. This dialectic of structure and cladding derived from Kahn’s interest in Roman architecture, which often used thin revetments of materials like marble over structures of brick and concrete. Kahn was particularly fascinated with Roman ruins where only small amounts of cladding remained on structural forms that were largely exposed. Most of the Salk Institute’s site-cast concrete structure is left visible (indeed, the concrete was executed with exquisite detail), and honorific materials are used sparingly to indicate and differentiate significant programmatic functions. A single slab of slate (which invites users to engage the wall as a chalkboard) marks each porch as a gathering space for small groups; teak infill denotes the quietly contemplative space of the offices; and travertine provides a suitably monumental finish for the plaza and its fountains and benches.
Kahn credited the design of the plaza to Mexican architect Luis Barragán, who visited the Salk Institute in February 1966, while it was still under construction. Barragán dismissed Kahn’s initial designs for the courtyard, which featured trees, and instead argued that the plaza should be paved in stone and remain free of vegetation. It remains unclear which architect added the narrow rill that bisects the plaza, but both Kahn and Barragán were enamored of the use of water at the Alhambra and other formal gardens that feature similar elements.
The American Institute of Architects awarded the Salk Institute its Twenty-Five-Year Award in 1992. In 1994, architects David Rinehart and John MacAllister of the Los Angeles firm Anshen and Allen completed an addition to the complex. Their project comprises two symmetrical buildings that extend the central axis of the original courtyard. Rinehart and MacAllister revised their initial design in response to vociferous criticism from architects and critics around the world, and while the addition has never garnered critical praise, it manages to step back and allow Kahn’s complex to stand on its own.
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“Salk Institute Launches Architectural Endowment Focused on Historic Preservation.” The Architect's Newspaper, June 2017.