Salk Institute

Jonas Salk established the Salk Institute in the early 1960s. Salk was the developer of the polio vaccine and wanted to create an institution that would explore important scientific questions. The New York University alumnus worked at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City in his early years before exploring research at the University of Michigan. Eventually Salk found himself in Pittsburgh where he commenced research that led to his development of the polio vaccine. Jonas Salk announced the success of the vaccine on April 12, 1955. After he successfully eliminated the immense fears polio had caused for decades, Salk wanted to move forward in his scientific career. His decision to found the Salk Institute in the La Jolla area of San Diego, California on a 27-acre plateau adjacent to the ocean marked the next step in both his career and the beginnings of an important research institution that remains today.

Jonas Salk employed Louis Kahn to design and construct his institute. Kahn was an American architect based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Kahn was one of the most influential and important architects of the 20th century. He was trained in the classical Beaux-Arts style and studied the castles of Europe and other medieval structures during his younger years. He found a foothold designing in the International Style until about 1952, when he designed the Yale University Art Gallery and took a leap forward in modernist architecture. Kahn’s mature work includes the Salk Institute, which combines medieval architecture with modernist style using primarily concrete and brick as building material. The Salk Institute has been hailed as Kahn’s masterpiece by many and serves as a monument to 20th century Modern architecture.

Photo: Jim Harper

Photo: Jim Harper

Kahn and Salk worked together to design a facility with separate functions. Kahn had been designing in this way for years before, separating the stairwells, elevators, exhaust and intake vents, and pipes from the laboratories and offices. This typology of separation is known as servant-served and is widely used in laboratory and scientific design. Kahn took this philosophy further and added his own influences of classical and medieval design with formal, geometric forms. The castle inspiration can be seen clearly in the Salk Institute. It appears as a fortress against a crystal clear ocean. The picturesque lot and views of the Pacific are mirrored in a long reflection pool in the center of the facility.

Salk Institute Panorama

Photo: Gregg M. Erickson

The Salk Institute employs complete and total symmetry in its two volumes. The landscape and buildings create an axis, a universe unto itself. Each edifice rises six floors, three of these house the laboratories and research areas and the other three house the service features.

The entire institute was created out of concrete, teak, and steel and finished in travertine marble. The unfinished concrete, teak and steel have weathered well with little maintenance needed. Kahn was a huge advocate of letting building materials speak for themselves, and no better example can be found than in the Salk Institute.

The research center’s cloister-like arrangement gives a sense of serenity and quiet to the space. The calm of the buildings, water features, and surrounding landscape provides an excellent space for contemplation, collaboration, and learning. Kahn managed to juxtapose this serene sensibility with the strength of his creation. The Salk Institute hangs in an impeccable balance in both design and in function.

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