“The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building.”
~Louis Kahn, Salk Institute Architect
They sit like two mirrored rows of accordion doors, unfolding as they march at perfect angles toward the Pacific. From a distance, bits of glass and wood peek out from partly-concealed recesses, adding warmth to the stately concrete structures. In between, a narrow river of water flowing from a central courtyard seems to spill into the ocean beyond.
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is a Modernist masterpiece and a fascinating story of two worlds – architecture and science – coming together to create an extraordinary vision in a spectacular location. Perched on 27 acres of coastal bluffs in La Jolla, California, the Institute was founded by Jonas Salk, famously known for developing the polio vaccine.
In 1960, Salk commissioned architect Louis Kahn to create an inspiring environment for his research center. According to the Institute’s website, Salk charged Kahn to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso,” with open and unobstructed laboratory spaces, adaptable to the ever-changing needs of science. As the project developed, architect Luis Barragán was also brought on board to collaborate on the Institute’s courtyard design. He is credited with the idea for the single water feature.
Twenty-nine separate structures form the Salk Institute. Each building is six stories tall, and each laboratory block’s interior façade is home to five towers housing 36 faculty studies, all with courtyard and Pacific Ocean views. Six floors of offices at the west end of each building feature balconies overlooking the coastline. About 850 research scientists work at the Salk Institute in a variety of specialties including genetics, neurosciences and molecular and plant biology.
I was surprised by the quietness of the Salk Institute. There’s a feeling of solitude – even among all the concrete and stone – as if you’ve landed in the middle of nature. It’s easy to forget that people are actually working here. As you walk along the courtyard, the river bubbles along, drawing you forward until it pours into an emerald pool, where the line between sea and sky comes into focus.
The private, not-for-profit Salk Institute is open to the public during weekday business hours. Tickets for self-guided tours must be purchased online in advance and are valid for ten days after the purchase date.
Herb and I stopped by late on Friday afternoon and spent about an hour wandering around the campus. After our visit, we headed to downtown La Jolla…where the memory of Louis Kahn’s California masterpiece is very much alive and well.