Modern Monumentality, Louis Kahn

Virginia_Duran_Blog_La Jolla-Kahn_
Located in La Jolla, California, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies (1959-1965) is probably the most important and poetic building of Louis Kahn in the United States. I had the chance to visit it in person and have to say that was deeply impressed by its meaningful monumentality. Walls and voids, that is how I would describe this architecture.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Kahn and John SalkLouis Kahn and John Salk

HISTORY: Kahn and Jonas Salk met in 1959, and there was an immediate rapport between them. Salk was crearly taken with Kahn personally, who, for his part, was captivated by Salk’s idea that biomedical research was not only an affair of professionals but “belonged to the whole population”. Indeed, Salk became “his most trusted critic”

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Kahn and John Salk_WaterBuilding angles and fountain

CONCEPT: The building uses an open space to address the horizon line of the Pacific, and employs a channel of water and light to suggest a metaphysical dimension in the research into the hidden laws of nature. On the other hand, its form evokes the majesty of a cathedral.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Kahn and John Salk_Courtyard Courtyard from the lowest partVirginia_Duran_Blog_Kahn and John Salk_Travertine ChairsDetail of the travertine chairs

WHAT IS IT: Two multistory blocks enclosed on an open courtyard, which at first Kahn proposed to treat as a garden. He had recently been impressed with the work of Mexican architect Luis Barragán who after coming to La Jolla convinced Kahn to leave the courtyard unplanted and act as the binding element of the two buildings (a little bit like water-courses of certain Arab places).

Virginia_Duran_Blog_La Jolla-Kahn-PlanLandscape Plan

MATERIALS + DETAILS: The bulk of the building is cast-in-place concrete, the shuttering carefully jointed to make a rich surface pattern. The walls of the studies are so angled that their windows did not look into the court or at each other, but westward toward the ocean. Whereas the laboratories are faced with concrete, the study towers on the court are finished in wood siding. The court and all the stone surfaces are paved in travertine, that honey-buff areated stone of which so much of Rome was built, and which turns a silvery gray with time.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Kahn and John Salk_Double WallConcrete wall Virginia_Duran_Blog_Kahn and John Salk_Concrete and woodConcrete and Wood Details

Virginia_Duran_Blog_La Jolla-Kahn-Water Detail
Fountain Detail

IMPACT OF LIGHT: The California sun could be sharp enough. To avoid the glare of the sun he made the enclosure a double wall, one building inside another. He considered sunscreens and brise-soleils to be disfigurements on many contemporary buildings.

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Kahn and John Salk_Double Wall_Double Wall Shading System

Virginia_Duran_Blog_Kahn and John Salk_InteriorInterior

This was my experience on Kahn’s building. What did you think of it?
Do you think he achieved monumentality?

Virginia_Duran_Blog_La Jolla-Kahn

– TASCHEN 2006:”KAHN” by Joseph Rosa
–  Harry N. Abrams 2001: “Louis Kahn” by Joseph Rykwert

28 thoughts on “Modern Monumentality, Louis Kahn

  1. By far my favorite architect, I love all the stories behind his work, from making bricks, to the idea that one begins with a man sitting under a tree and people gather; such monumental work that reflects the past in the present moment : bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am seeing this comment now, better late than never 😉
      I also appreciate his way of interpreting reality, and making it better. His love for bricks, as you mention, the idea of place to gather… it’s all so carefully taken into architecture. A delight 🙂


  2. I know nothing about architecture, but I really enjoyed seeing this work through your eyes. I would have found it impressive in any case, but your comments help me understand it a bit more. Situated in La Jolla is a natural advantage; I remember that place as being quite beautiful. I do think the building has a monumental look, insofar as I understand the term.


    • I apologize because I am answering literally 4 years late. I was new to WordPress and didn’t understand the comment section… How are you Julia?
      I haven’t been back to La Jolla since then!


  3. I love it when you present buildings and their details in a way that I never saw before. I love the travertine chairs … monumentality ??? … I should go there a feel it … but in your picture it looks impressive.


    • I know its difficult to evaluate a building without feeling it. But the materiality can be pictured in some way. I am glad you liked it, new amazing buildings are on their way to the blog 🙂


  4. I want to hug people who design great buildings. I think your description of walls and voids works well. Did you have a chance to talk to people who work in the building? I recently talked to some people about a new building at our university which received accolades and awards. They said the building is not that wonderful to work in. I think how much people enjoy being in a building is also an important factor.


    • I didn’t have the chance to talk to people who worked in the building but I must say that in general the most popular architecture masterpieces are not wonderful to use. For instance, the famous Farnsworth House Mrs. Farnsworth sued Mies van der Rohe (Top 10 architect of the 20th Century) for creating an unlivable place. Anyways I agree with you, architecture should be functional.


  5. The way you present it… the building is truly monumental. I’m certain it is imposing even more, up close. Thanks for this level of detail.


    • I don’t know why but I didn’t see any of the comments in this article, so I am answering now (better late than never :P) How are you?


  6. I came back a few times to view these photos! Thank you for the background behind this architecture. Most if the time we just walk past buildings without thinking of what goes into making them a reality.


    • Thanks for your nice comments! It is very true that sometimes we don’t realise how much work it takes and how complex they are. However, not all of the buildings in our cities are amazing. There has been a lot of irresponsible architecture lately.


  7. I know nothing about architecture, but especially the last picture reminds me of the imposing temples in Egypt, especially the temples at Karnak in Luxor


    • I am sure Mr. Kahn would love your comment. I would have never thought so but now that you mention I see they are indeed very much related and I guess it was some of his intention!


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    • Hi, these pictures were all taken by me except the second one (the black and white one) and the one that says “interior” that was taken by a friend.


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