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Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies
10010 North Torrey Pines Road
La Jolla, CA

Louis Kahn 1965

The extraordinary complex of the Salk Institute is more beautifully and humbly sited and executed than can be conveyed in photographs. Photographs usually express the openness and serenity of the plaza, but not its humanly-scaled gesture to the site and Pacific Ocean beyond. The Institute is a geometrized clearing in the landscape, and continually references and expresses the landscape - not itself or its designer.

This opening into the Pacific Ocean is explained as a uniquely American architectural gesture by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, in "A Protest Concerning the Extension of the Salk Center," in Robert Venturi’s Iconography and Electronics Upon a Generic Architecture: A View from the Drafting Room (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996):

Our great American cities do not conform to the European urban ideal, where a whole is defined within confining borders and axial terminations, but acknowledge rather an order that is incomplete--fragmented--as it accommodates inherent expansion and progress toward eternal frontiers.

Louis Kahn designed the Salk Center in La an eloquent composition that is spatially and symbolically incomplete, with its two richly rhythmical buildings...[which] define a powerful axis that is open at each end and that constitutes thereby a significant gesture within an American landscape. The composition of this common perceptually, physically, poignantly American as it frames the sea and the land where the old western frontier ends and the new eastern frontier begins.

Because the openness of the plaza is so important to the design, it is interesting to note that Kahn had a collaborator. In Kenneth Frampton’s book, Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995), he writes:

It is surely not without some transcultural significance that the Mexican architect Luis Barragan would play a decisive role in determining the final form of the space, deeming it to be a civic plaza rather than a garden court and thus suggesting that it should be left without any planting whatsoever...

[Barragan said,] "I would not put a tree or blade of grass in this space. This should be a plaza of stone, not a garden." I [Kahn] looked at Dr. Salk and he at me and we both felt this was deeply right. Feeling our approval, he added joyously, "If you make this a plaza, you will gain a facade--a facade to the sky."

The Institute received the American Institute of Architects Twenty-Five Year Award in 1992.


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Click each picture to enlarge it.

Christy Rogers, 1998
Updated 2008

How to visit

Detailed visitor information, including tours, opening times and driving directions, are given clearly, with a map and further architectural background, on the Institute's web site.


Books and other web sites

Click the book titles to view and to order direct from

0847813304_m.gif (4749 bytes) Louis I. Kahn: In the Realm of Architecture
David B. Brownlee, David G. De Long (Contributor), Sherri Geldin
Salk Institute: Louis I. Kahn (Architecture in Detail)
James Steele

One of the Phaidon series of books on individual buildings, with particularly good photogrpaphs.

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