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.
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”
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.
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).
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.
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.
This was my experience on Kahn’s building. What did you think of it?
Do you think he achieved monumentality?
– TASCHEN 2006:”KAHN” by Joseph Rosa
– Harry N. Abrams 2001: “Louis Kahn” by Joseph Rykwert