Visiting The Salk Institute

In 1959, Jonas Salk, the man who had discovered the vaccine for polio, approached Louis I. Kahn with a project. The city of San Diego, California had gifted him with a picturesque site in La Jolla along the Pacific coast, where Salk intended to found and build a biological research center. Salk, whose vaccine had already had a profound impact on the prevention of the disease, was adamant that the design for this new facility should explore the implications of the sciences for humanity. He also had a broader, if no less profound, directive for his chosen architect: to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.” The result was the Salk Institute, a facility lauded for both its functionality and its striking aesthetics – and the manner in which each supports the other. Along with these lofty instructions, Salk laid down a series of more practical requirements. Laboratory spaces in the new facility would have to be open, spacious, and easily updated as new discoveries and technologies advanced the course of scientific research. The entire structure was to be simple and durable, requiring minimal maintenance. At the same time, it was to be bright and welcoming – an inspiring environment for the researchers who would work there. Kahn’s scheme for the Institute is spatially orchestrated in a similar way to a monastery: a secluded intellectual community. Three zones were to stand apart, all facing the ocean to the west: the Meeting House, the Village, and the laboratories. The Meeting House was to be a large community and conference venue, while the Village was to have provided living quarters; each part of the complex would then have been separated from its parallel neighbors by a water garden. Ultimately, the Meeting House and Village were cut from the project, and only the laboratories were built