The Salk Institute: Connecting the California Conscience

A California icon of Modern architecture, The Salk Institute for Biological Sciences– like its designer- maintains a low profile: Invisible from the street, only revealing itself once you enter the campus and is arguably one of architectures most transformative experiences. Perched dramatically on a cliff above the Pacific Ocean, the research complex, completed in 1965, was designed by Modernist architect Louis I. Khan. His symmetrical, “zig zag” arrangement of concrete buildings frames a stunning travertine plaza with a dramatic endpoint where the horizon meets the sky.

Built in 1962 and declared a national historic landmark in 1991, the famous building has become an emblem of tranquility in architecture; purposely planted symmetrical vistas overlooking the rugged Pacific coastline create a unique California style. Kahn, (always ahead of his time) designed the complex to express an underlying sense of spiritualism, fusing influences from both the mid-century modernism and Brutalism, cradled by a gently flowing stream through the center of the design, and peppered with California sunshine throughout even the deepest corners. Upon entering the plaza, you immediately feel the ethereal glow of the western light elements, bouncing off the organic teak wood and travertine marble finishes. Its function may be for science, but Kahn’s structure feels more like a temple to nature. The majestic masterpiece reflects an understanding of science, the human connection (working together) and a soulful solitude, in a way only architect Louis I. Kahn could conceive.

Architecture writer Sam Lubell, describes his experience after touring the Salk as this, “It’s perfectly symmetrical and you have this channel that leads to infinity and you get this feeling of awe. I like to call it the Taj Mahal of brutalism. I’ve been to the actual Taj Mahal a couple of times, and it’s the same feeling: You get pulled in every time you are there, staring down that long channel.”

“And of course, there’s the site, which is right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean,” he adds. “It’s very experiential. A lot of Louis Kahn’s work is like that. You don’t get it until you go.”

It has been over 50 years since Kahn completed the project, his client, Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the first successful polio vaccine, commissioned him to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.” Needless to say Kahn rose to the challenge; today The Salk Institute is considered a global architectural icon. With the popularity of mid-century architecture and design on the rise, an inquisitive mind and a passion for everything uniquely California – I reached out to the Salk Institute for some Interesting facts about The Salk Institute and its impressive roots in science and California style.

The Facts

  • The collaboration between Louis Kahn and Jonas Salk produced a design for a facility uniquely suited to scientific research. The next challenge was to realize it through the use of materials that could last for generations with only minimal maintenance. The materials chosen for this purpose were concrete, teak, lead, glass, and special (A242) steel.
  • Kahn flooded the laboratories with daylight. He built all four outer walls of the laboratory levels out of large, double-strength glass panes, producing an open, airy work environment. Local zoning codes restricted the height of the buildings so that the first two stories had to be underground. This did not, however, prevent the architect from bringing in daylight: he designed a series of light wells 40 feet long and 25 feet wide on both sides of each building to bring daylight into the lowest level.
  • No sealer or stain was applied to the teak so that it would weather to a natural great, and the A242 steel he chose for the metal work was left untreated to create a dense adherent oxide that prevents further corrosion.
  • The one feature of Kahn’s design that has proven the most beneficial is the interstitial spaces. By creating these spaces between each lab floor, Kahn succeeded in confining all the electrical lines, piping systems and ventilation ducts to this area–keeping the laboratories completely open and unobstructed. This architectural design allows researchers to re-configure their laboratories as scientific needs change.
  • Kahn channeled Roman times to rediscover the waterproof qualities and the warm, pinkish glow of “pozzuolanic” concrete. Once the concrete was set, he allowed no further processing of the finish—no grinding, no filling, and above all, no painting. The architect chose an unfinished look for the teak surrounding the study towers and west office windows, and he directed that no sealer or stain be applied to the teak. The building’s exterior, with only minor required maintenance, today looks much as it did in the 1960s.
  • 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Salk into the California Hall of Fame.
  • It’s a collaboration that draws architectural pilgrims from all over the world. Louis I. Khan’s Salk Institute receives an estimated 4,500 visitors a year.
  • In 1974, Kahn died of a heart attack in a restroom at Penn Station in Manhattan. He had just returned from a work trip to India. After his long career, he was in debt when he died.