E. J. ELLIOTT
Early in my studies I became fascinated with how architectural interventions interacted and aided innovation in other fields. A fascinating example of such is the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Designed by Louis Kahn and built in 1966, the facility serves as an independent, non-profit, scientific research institute founded by Jonas Salk, best known for discovering the polio vaccine. Salk refused to patent the vaccine believing that it belonged to the people. This idea transposed into Kahn’s work, with the overall building design focused on creating an idealized collaborative and open work environment.
Composed primarily of concrete, wood, and travertine, the Salk Institute exemplifies Kahn’s belief that material construction should be understood, revealed, and expressed in the design. The articulation of this philosophy is throughout the design particularly in his choice of simple materials, clear structural design, and the use of concrete walls to express tectonic forms.
The form itself consists of two mirrored rectangular research blocks with a series of detached towers separated by an axial courtyard, terminating by an unimpeded view overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The spaces of the Salk Institute have a hierarchical flow from large collaborative labs situated on the perimeter, to individual private offices. The open design of each laboratory block provides a uniquely flexible working space. Kahn understood the necessity for adjustability, given the rise of new technologies as well as the benefit to a collaborative work environment.
Towers connect to the larger rectangular research blocks by small bridges. Each tower consists of two to four offices each with a view towards the center and a diagonal projection towards the view.
Between the towers, circulation bridges, and research blocks are a series of sunken courtyards. Each courtyard serves the dual purpose of providing natural light into underground spaces and smaller outdoor communal spaces.
After consulting Luis Barragon, the central courtyard, originally conceptualized as a garden, was left bare except for a single water feature. In Kahn’s words, the courtyard became a “façade to the sky,” and is arguably the most powerful visual component of the facility.
The Salk Institute promotes order, precision, discovery, and collaboration. It simultaneously balances the rigidity of the scientific method with the dynamic nature of innovation. Kahn’s building beautifully showcases the entanglement of architecture in other fields and its ability to bolster innovative thinking.