In the 1950s prizewinning biologist and doctor Jonas Salk was working on a cure for polio in a dark basement laboratory in Pittsburgh. Progress was slow, so to clear his head, Salk traveled to Assisi, Italy, where he spent time in a 13th-century monastery, ambling amid its columns and cloistered courtyards. Suddenly, Salk found himself awash in new insights, including the one that would lead to his successful polio vaccine. Salk was convinced he had drawn his inspiration from the contemplative setting. He came to believe so strongly in architecture’s ability to influence the mind that he teamed up with world-renowned architect Louis Kahn to build the Salk Institute, as a scientific facility that would stimulate breakthroughs and encourage creativity.
Jonas Salk had a distinctive vision for the creation of the Institute. In the early 1960s, Kahn was commissioned to design the Salk Institute. Salk’s idea was to provide spacious laboratory spaces that could be adapted to the ever-changing needs of science. The building materials had to be simple, strong, durable, and as maintenance-free as possible. Salk summarized his aesthetic objectives by telling the architect to "create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso." Kahn, who was a devoted artist before he became an architect, responded to this challenge.
Kahn's deep experience in Italy, Greece, and Egypt among ancient ruins left an indelible mark on his project for the Salk Institute; thus, various historic typologies melted into the project from its early stages: the Roman villa, the medieval castle, the cruciform church and the abbey.
Louis Kahn's Salk Institute for Biological Studies on the Pacific coast near La Jolla, Calif., aspires to an order achieved through clarity, definition, and consistency of application. For many, this magnificent structure may seem out of place, but it works well with the surrounding environment because of the spatial continuity that it possesses.
Progressing from the International Style, Louis Kahn believed buildings should be monumental and spiritually inspiring. In his design for the Salk Institute, he was successful in creating the formal perfection and emotional expressions that he so vigorously tried to achieve. Dr. Jonas Salk, whose vision included a facility with an inspiring environment for scientific research, and Kahn’s design decisions created a functional institutional building that also became an architectural masterpiece.
Kahn’s creation is an elegant and powerful two mirror-image of rectangular buildings that flank a sweeping courtyard made entirely of imported travertine marble. Flowing through its centre is the “river of life”, which cascades down several step pools toward the sea. The buildings and courtyard consist of open elegance and simple lines, inspiring open-mindedness, imaginative thought and creativity.
Originally, Kahn designed the courtyard as a place sunken in vegetation, yet it kept its mineral aspect animated by the stream flowing from the eastern fountain and leaking through the gutter embedded in the travertine floor to the western ponds. Thus, it results in a cosmic garden dedicated rather to eternity than to a mere socializing place for scientists. Kahn didn't need to dress up the land around the plan because the Salk Institute is the landscape. It is one with the site.
The open plaza is made of travertine marble, and this single narrow strip of water runs down the center, linking the buildings to the vast Pacific Ocean. The strip of water also enhances the symmetry intended in the plan and creates a sense of monumentality in the otherwise bare open plaza that is meant to be in the words of architect Luis Barragan “a facade to the sky.” Complete with this dignified water element, the Salk Institute is simply put in Kahn’s words, “the thoughtful making of space” revealed through such simplicity and elegance that it has since its completion in 1965 been regarded as of the most inspirational works of architecture in the world.
Before designing, Kahn referenced and studied monasteries in order to build his concept of an “intellectual retreat.” He took advantage of the site’s tranquil surroundings and abundant natural light. Kahn's modern design takes full advantage of the atmosphere by opening up a broad plaza between two research and lab wings providing a view of the magnificent Pacific Ocean and the coastline. The laboratories are separated from the study areas, and each study faces the blue ocean with horizontal light pouring in. This allows scientists to take a break from their frantic studies and clear their minds with a breath-taking view.
He also made a service floor under each laboratory which established a very flexible space and this concept is still used today. This is no ordinary office building. Louis Kahn used a combination of modern architecture with much simplicity to produce arguably his greatest feat as an architect. A lot of concepts that he initiated in this plan are still in use all over the world today. The relation to the site, the tectonic characteristics, and the ideas of servant versus served, all work together to achieve a great sense of order in the Salk Institute.
The servant and served spaces, as Kahn referred to them,in the Salk Institute create a consistent order, which is evident throughout the design. The laboratories act as the served spaces, while the servant spaces are represented by the studies. All of the ideas are initiated in the studies or offices, and the research is carried out in the labs. An idea that is still used to this day in all forms of architecture is the way the Kahn guides the utilities through the building in an unnoticeable manner. Served spaces and servant spaces are entirely integrated.
Inside a Salk Institute's study
The buildings have six stories, with the first three of them containing laboratories and the last three with utilities. These spaces are connected to protruding towers that contain spaces for individual studies linked with bridges. Due to zoning codes, the first two stories had to be underground. In order for these spaces to receive ample sunlight, Kahn designed a series of light wells on both sides of each building that were 40 feet long and 25 feet wide. The laboratories above ground are also well-lit spaces with large glass panes for their exterior walls.
Louis Kahn articulated three essential concepts: 1. Separation of the perimeter walls as to the major structure with a view of exposing them to a more dramatic interplay between light and shadow thus making them look like some "enveloping ruins"; 2. Sever, serial, and hierarchical articulation of the volumetric shapes identified in their own geometry and structure.; 3. Clear-cut functional distinction between "serving" and "served" spaces, displaying in horizontal and vertical section simultaneously.
The materials used included wood, concrete, marble, water, steel, and glass, and they all contributed to the Brutalist notions and simplistic plan. Khan believed that concrete was the stone of the modern man, and therefore it was to be left with exposed joints and formwork markings.The concrete was poured using a technique studied in Roman architecture. Once the concrete was set, he allowed no further finishing touches in order to attain a warm glow in the concrete.
Kahn also integrated mechanical and electrical services into this architecture, which gave laboratories a new concept. These technologies were hidden in the design to continue Kahn's search for order in the plan. Ceiling and column ideas were also combined to separate the air that you breathe from the air that you throw away. Interlocking volumes are present throughout the structure, all the way down to the details on the furniture.
The Salk Institute’s open environment teeming with empty space is symbolic of an open environment for creation, the symmetry stands for scientific precision, and submerging crevasses allow warm, natural light to enter the buildings like the intellectual light that leads to discovery. The contrast between balance and dynamic space manifests a pluralistic invitation for scientific study in structures developed to accommodate their respective functions as parts of a research facility.
Although modern in appearance, it is essentially an isolated compound for individual and collaborative study not unlike monasteries as sanctuaries for religious discovery, which directly influenced Louis Kahn in his design. The Salk Institute is his masterpiece reinterpretation of the monastic “intellectual retreat” in our day and age.