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Surveying Salk

Great buildings are hard to read at first. They have an order and rhythm distinctly their own. The Salk Institute of Biological Studies, designed by Louis Kahn, is such a building. Sitting atop the long grassy bluffs of Torey Pines, and overlooking the expanse that is the Pacific Ocean, the Salk Institute is considered an architectural masterpiece.  Its monumental gravity has seared an indelible image into the mind of every architect who has seen it.

Like most Brutalist style buildings of the 1960s, it appears defensive as you approach it – introverted and protective.  Arriving at the visitors’ entrance, I am greeted by a guard who can spot an architect a mile away – sketchbook in hand, camera on hip, guarded grin on face.  Given a visitor’s sticker I set off, excitement growing, as I climbed the broad travertine steps.  At the top of the stair, I’m presented with the stark image of two buildings separated by a wide plaza that is bisected by a thin line of water flowing into the deep blue infinity of where the ocean meets the sky.

This thin line creates a distinct barrier in your mind.  As people transverse the plaza, you begin to wonder if they will actually make it across this one-foot-wide canal.  When they do, you are shocked at their audacity to even attempt such a thing.  The Salk has a beautiful way of making you uncomfortable like this.  In a museum you are told not to touch the art, yet here you are walking on, and through, a grand sculpture.  There is a quiet monumentality to it all, similar in scale to a cathedral open to the sky above.

The central plaza is framed on either side by large vertical slabs of concrete that resulted from pouring a mixture of lime, sand, and cement into formwork. The forms, now long gone, left behind lines in the concrete like historic brail reveling in its tale of proportioned beauty and order.  Neatly nestled inside these vertical slabs are intricate boxes of Teak. Each box, a researcher’s office, contains a window facing back out to the sacred void of the plaza with a view to the ocean. The visual warmth of these wooden forms serves as a welcome contrast to the surrounding coolness of the omnipresent concrete.

To achieve Jonas Salk’s vision of “a collaborative environment where researchers could explore the basic principles of life and contemplate the wider implications of their discoveries for the future of humanity,” Kahn separated the cloistered offices from the research laboratories by a complex series of open stairwells and covered walkways.  This separation was meant to create instances of spontaneous interaction and spark new ideas before delving into the light-filled laboratories beyond and getting caught up in the work of the day.

The idea of distinctly separating work and retreat is an intriguing one.  Historically, our homes have served as this retreat, divorced from our offices.  However, in this modern age, most of us now live in a mess of our daily work.  Connected by computers, cell phones, and the internet, we increasingly take our work home with us – or simply work directly from home itself.  As for me, I now dream of having a quiet space of my own, empty except for an Eames lounge, a glass of single malt, and a pleasant view to ponder life’s significance.


By: Nick Wilson