“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.

The Salk Institute entrance offers a subtle hit to what lies beyond.
The expansive travertine-paved courtyard and its centerpiece fountain give the illusion of a pathway to the Pacific.

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.

View from the courtyard, looking north.
Close-up of teak window detail, added by Kahn to complement the concrete.
Light and shadows create a warm glow inside a stairwell.

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.

An eye-level view where the water begins.
Water spills into a reflecting pool at the end of the courtyard as a paraglider from the nearby Torrey Pines Gliderport sails by in the distance.
Waterfall at the end of the courtyard.
Looking north, by the reflecting pool and patio.
View from the far end of the courtyard.
I love how the towers serve as a frame for the Pacific.

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.

Mural titled “Once Upon a Time in the West” by Kota Ezawa. 7905 Herschel Avenue, La Jolla.

4 Comments

  • Hello. What a beautifully written piece! I wanted to point out an awkward typo in the last word of the following clause: “The private, not-for-profit Salk Institute is open to the pubic”

    So glad you enjoyed your visit to the Institute!

    Best,
    Allie Akmal
    Manager, Media Relations
    Salk Institute

    • Allie, THANK YOU for catching that!! Awkward is an apt description 🙂
      Thank you also for the kind words. It was truly a wonderful visit, and I couldn’t get enough of that glorious view!

  • How wonderful the description, “The sun never knew how great it was until it hit the side of a building” is!

    We’ve passed by casually all the time, but never imagined the existence of the mables of the modern architecture there. your point of ‘ two worlds – architecture and science’ is very intuitive. That two worlds are art and science. The architecture is the first art form in human history. Getting together with art and science, architecture and science is making the world harmonious and complete. Isn’t it.

    Thank you for your finding and letting us know. We will visit there and appreciate the architectural work.

    myron

    • “Architecture and science is making the world harmonious and complete.” What a beautiful thought, Myron! Thanks so much for your insight here. I think you will really enjoy the Salk Institute, and knowing the story behind the collaboration will make it even more meaningful.

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