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In the Field: Salk Institute

Examining the origins of a radical laboratory in a California beach town offers insight into architecture’s role in scientific discovery.


In the Field: Salk Institute

“The Salk Institute is a curious place, not easily understood, and the reason for it is that this is a place in the process of creation. It is being created and is engaged in studies of creation. We cannot be certain what will happen here, but we can be certain it will contribute to the welfare and understanding of man.” Louis Kahn

In a previous post, we considered the way architecture transverses ‘shelter’. We asked ourselves whether and how a building can be employed as a vehicle for spirituality. This month, we’re furthering our exploration into the architectural purpose. Specifically, we’re interested in how architecture might facilitate scientific discovery. Science, health and well-being are crowded topics at the moment, as vaccine distribution becomes more than just a hope. But in California, they’re familiar — ubiquitous perhaps. And so it goes that our state’s best architecture would address the topics directly. In the name of 2021, let’s explore how.

Massive rocky cliffs protrude from the deep blue Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, a beach city about as stereotypically Californian as it gets. On one such cliff stands the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Since its founding by Jonas Salk in 1960 (we’d be remiss not to mention that he as a scientist played a monumental role in the development of the Polio vaccine), the Institute has provided a physical space for research in aging and regenerative medicine, cancer biology, immune system biology, metabolism and diabetes, neuroscience and neurological disorders and finally, plant biology. It might be humbly stated though, that the bonus genius of the Institute is not something lauded in a scientific journal but is evident the minute one steps onto its campus. The Institute is an architectural marvel, commended equally for function as it is for aesthetic. It is the fruit of Salk’s original mandate to Kahn: design a campus that will inspire an exploration of health for all of humanity and also “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso".

It was 1957 when Salk approached Kahn with this unusual task. The location, of course, provided unadulterated beauty to be harnessed. But Kahn had much work to do in developing a new approach to laboratory design. He studied the structure of laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania in order to understand the functional aspects of his eventual design, what worked and what didn't work. Ironically enough, the resulting campus feels more like a house of worship, perhaps aided by the austere and pointed architectural decisions that evoke faith in wonder. Hope feels abound on the campus. The laboratory buildings mirror each other, opening up to the ocean as they flank a large courtyard dissected by a central channel of water cut delicately into travertine ground. The channel meets the horizon line of the ocean, as if to flow directly into the salty waves.

Each laboratory unit angled to the ocean view, connected to neighboring labs by bridges simple in form so as not to take away from the view, but functioning as a physical reminder to encourage collaboration. The entire project consists of a very limited material palette: unfinished concrete (one called pozzolanic concrete, which was formulated in ancient Rome and has a distinct pink hue), teak and travertine. It’s a palette that feels native to the environment and allows for easy repairs while requiring low maintenance. It was important for Kahn that the building materials and structures be uncomplicated and readily available, should necessary alterations take place as new methods of scientific research became employed. In fact, the electrical wiring, plumbing pipes and the like for each laboratory unit were housed in “interstitial space between each lab floor”. This cleverly maximized space in each lab and allowed for the labs to be relatively unobstructed in terms of their usage of space. In general, Kahn was incredibly thoughtful in his space planning. There were careful considerations taken into the amount of space allotted for collaborative research versus introspective discovery, and this undoubtedly aids in the immense output of research on the part of the Institute each year.

Admittedly, there is one construction fact we are partial to. It brings one of our design heroes into the narrative of the Salk. While Kahn was designing the grounds of the Institute, he intended to fill the (now iconic) space between the two laboratory buildings with a garden. It was architect Luis Barragan who urged him to maintain the space as a void or better yet, an offering. He called this void a “facade to the sky”. Barragan, with his unbelievable sense of color and form, had the sharp instinct to know that the blue of the ocean and the blue of the sky needed to be left alone. They would inspire in their natural form, the buildings and grounds just needed to direct the mind towards them. His sketch (see below) shows this most brilliant intention.

The photos here are from a trip we took to the Institute before lockdown. The story of the incredible collaboration between Kahn & Salk was found via ArchDaily ( and the Salk Institute website (