The Science Hall of Fame

Revered by architects and historians, Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute has stood the test of time and become a model for the modern research facility.

Louis Kahn was no holder of grudges, not even the kind great artists sometimes hold against themselves for their creative failures. He was not a score-settler. And while his perfectionism could be extreme, by all accounts he moved through the world avoiding confrontation (particularly in his complicated private life), not seeking it.

Still, if there was ever a project that Kahn had reason to approach with a chip on his shoulder, it was the research institute Jonas Salk asked him to design on a spectacular piece of land overlooking the Pacific, in La Jolla, north of San Diego. When Salk, already famous as the developer of the first polio vaccine, hired Kahn in December 1959, the architect had just wrapped up design work on another research facility, the A.N. Richards Laboratories, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It would be another two years before it opened, but already the project loomed as a sharp disappointment for Kahn.

While the Richards scheme had its champions outside the university—including Yale architectural historian Vincent Scully, who sometimes seemed to think Kahn could do no wrong—it had been compromised from the beginning. The university slashed the construction budget even as it was deciding to staff the building with more employees than Kahn anticipated. Perhaps most frustrating for the architect, throughout the design and construction process he was dealing not with a single decisive client but with a multiheaded consortium of what we now infelicitously call “stakeholders” within the university. And as any grad student or college dean knows, there is no bureaucracy quite like a university bureaucracy.

More from Metropolis

The result was a building that seemed to the researchers working there overcrowded and poorly laid out. Although they were impressed by its forms—a group of thin towers clustered around stacked laboratories—they took to hanging aluminum foil on the large windows to cut down the glare and griping about secretaries’ desks blocking the hallways.

Those complaints (which would be echoed by a later generation of Richards scientists interviewed by Kahn’s son, Nathaniel, for his 2003 documentary, My Architect) must have filtered back to Kahn while he was in the middle of design work on the La Jolla project. They implied that he was an architect more interested in producing a kind of architectural sculpture than in serving the needs of a building’s users. As Carter Wiseman points out in his excellent new biography, Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style: A Life in Architecture, “Even some of Kahn’s loyalists conceded that Richards was more image than substance.”

Arriving just after the Richards project, the job for Salk offered Kahn a chance to improve on it. He had in that effort one tremendous advantage: a client who not only admired and seemed to understand him and his moods—and was willing to fund an innovative, expensive ­building—but who would stand up to him.

Salk hoped to create a center for biological ­science that would allow its research fellows and full-time professors a space to work both in collaboration with others and in relative isolation, surrounded by nature. He hired Kahn not because of the design of the Richards building, which he toured in 1959 while it was under construction, but because he found the architect such a compelling intellectual sparring partner—because Kahn seemed immediately to grasp, in practical as well as poetic terms, what he hoped to accomplish in La Jolla. And there was no doubt that Salk was in full control of the new institute: Kahn would answer to him alone.

His collaboration with Salk continues to rank as one of the most successful and fascinating in architectural history. The research center the two men produced—though it wound up smaller and less ambitious than they first envisioned—remains esteemed among the scientists who work there. It is also a touchstone for contemporary architects at work on a new generation of science labs. Even though it is now more than four decades old, and scientific research has changed radically during that time, they continue to see the Salk as a model of the form.

To understand why, I drove south from Los Angeles one morning in January to visit the Salk campus, which sits on a bluff overlooking the ocean about ten miles north of downtown San Diego. It was an overcast day, and by the time I arrived in La Jolla, the sun, which had earlier appeared poised to break through the clouds, decided to retreat altogether.

This was a disappointment since the famous plaza facing the Pacific—which Kahn designed with help from Mexican architect Luis Barragán—looks most spectacular when the blue sky and ocean stand in sharp contrast with the elemental grays of the travertine plaza and the concrete buildings that flank it. And since it’s sunny about 300 days out of the year in La Jolla, it looks that way nearly all the time.

To reach the plaza, you park in a surface lot to the east and then walk between a pair of office blocks that were added to the Salk campus in 1995. Those newer buildings, designed by Kahn protégé Jack MacAllister, were controversial from the start. (More controversial is a second planned addition, which would extend the facility westward, toward the canyon that separates the campus from the ocean.) Writing in the New York Times, Paul Goldberger called the buildings a “crass homage” to Kahn’s work and said visiting them made for a “profoundly saddening experience.”

Perhaps the biggest knock against the addition, which does mimic in almost slavish fashion the blunt concrete walls and expansive glass of Kahn’s original design, is that it opened up a large notch through the grove of eucalyptus and lemon trees that by the 1980s had grown thick enough to close off Kahn’s plaza from La Jolla as the city grew. The grove was not part of Kahn’s original scheme, but it made the plaza feel protected from the outside world. If you look west from the plaza you still see the Pacific, of course. If you look to the east you see the new buildings—and a man-made ocean of parked cars.

Despite that break in the wall of trees, and even under low-hanging clouds, walking into the plaza is still a revelatory experience. Indeed, for most architectural historians and critics—and many architects as well—the plaza is essential to the Salk’s power and importance. It is “at once ancient and modern” and “one of the most powerful and deeply moving spaces ever built,” Robert McCarter writes in his 2005 monograph on Kahn.

For me the most surprising thing about the plaza is the message carried by the beauty of its location—the way it so comfortably and confidently occupies prime real estate. (The site was donated by the city of San Diego, whose then mayor was a polio survivor.) For all sorts of reasons, we no longer build facilities dedicated to science on property this valuable. It tends to be given over to gated luxury villas or five-star hotels. If an institution like the Salk did control such property today, it would likely face pressure from its own board to sell it and plow the proceeds back into a bigger headquarters in a less romantic location. In that sense, to stand on the plaza today and look out over the ocean is to realize how much the priorities of the culture—not to mention the realities of the real estate market—have changed since 1959.

But for all of that, on the morning I visited, the plaza was oddly quiet, nearly devoid of activity. Unlike the famous outdoor rooms it most resembles—Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, in Rome, and Jefferson’s Great Lawn, at the University of Virginia—the Salk plaza is more a stunning example of superbly proportioned space than a gathering place. The whole time I was there I didn’t see a single conversation in the plaza; I saw only individuals hurrying from one side to the other.

If the plaza is usually placid, the Salk’s labs are beehives of activity. There are three floors of them on each side of the plaza, and to a nonscientist they look crammed with people and supplies. But by the standards of research lab architecture they are actually wide open and roomy. This was a key innovation of the Salk: to keep the lab floors free from clutter, Kahn and his structural engineer, August Komendant, spanned them with giant Vierendeel trusses.

This element of the design produced two benefits: it made columns in the middle of the labs unnecessary, and it provided room inside each of the trusses—which are nine feet tall and hollow—for extra floors to hold the mechanical equipment and the tanks of liquid and gas the researchers use in their experiments. At Richards, which also used Vierendeel trusses, these materials were stored in separate towers that rose next to the labs and were connected to them horizontally. In La Jolla, Kahn turned that arrangement on its head, serving the labs vertically from above. Seen in section, each of the lab floors is topped by a sort of attic that contains chemicals, re-frigerators, and other equipment for the scientists, as well as the building’s mechanical systems.

The result of that structural innovation was architecture’s first successful open-plan laboratory layout. It created spaces that are flexible enough to adjust to changing science or the preferences of individual scientists. Researchers simply clip shelving to the ceiling. They can rearrange their workstations at will. When scientists are hired, they call ahead and speak to the building engineers, who set up their sections of the lab according to their needs.

Without walls or columns separating one researcher’s sphere of influence from another’s, the layouts are designed so that the scientists will communicate and collaborate more freely than in traditional labs, which tend to feature a warren of closed-off spaces. Buildings by prominent architects are full of design features meant to foster that sort of cooperation, but in the case of the Salk they have worked. Some temporary walls have been added—to create a handful of private offices, for example—but for the most part the labs remain as open as Kahn hoped they’d be.

“This has been a spectacularly successful building, and you see more and more labs copying the open plan,” says Tony Hunter, a slight 63-year-old British scientist who is among the institute’s leading cell biologists. “It certainly fosters collaboration.”

On the far end of the floor where Hunter works, I met Andrew Dillin, a specialist in aging and neurodegeneration, who offered the same level of praise for Kahn’s design. “Most people think of the scientist working best in isolation, surrounded by four walls and a door,” he says. “But science really works best when there’s a kind of forced interaction. There are lots of research institutions where there are all kinds of space—and the science isn’t any good. This building creates a critical mass of people that’s needed for productive science.”

For Kahn, however, that “forced interaction” was only half the architectural equation he sketched out for the Salk. The other half had to do with contemplative space where scientists could read, think quietly, or simply stare at the ocean. On each side of the plaza he designed five study towers, which are detached from the labs and filled with a total of 20 individual offices for leading scholars.

The studies themselves—with teak shutters, built-in bookcases, and views of the Pacific—are beautiful. As a writer, I immediately coveted their combination of outlook and isolation. But they’re rarely visited by many of the scientists lucky enough to be granted one. “I’ve got one myself and almost never use it,” Hunter says. “I’d say that about half the people I know with studies don’t use them.”

For Hunter the studies are a quaint throwback to the 1960s. “Science was much more leisurely in those days,” he says. “There was more time to think and talk. The whole process is much faster these days. And I spend so much time traveling that when I’m here I like to be right in the middle of the lab.”

There are other imperfections in the design. There are too many exterior stairways and too few interior connections between floors, the scientists say, so serendipitous encounters are limited to the lab floors alone and rarely happen elsewhere on the campus. But in the end what continues to be so impressive about the Salk facility is the synchronicity between its architecture and its goals as an institution. This doesn’t just mean that the lab spaces continue to function surprisingly well. It has to do with the sense of detachment and intellectual independence that Salk hoped his new building would embody.

Just as setting up the research institute apart from a university campus—physically and in terms of its day-to-day operations—allowed its scientists great freedom, taking Kahn away from the muddled hierarchy of the Richards job allowed him to reimagine the architecture of research labs from the ground up. Salk challenged him on every major element of the design, but he also gave him the sort of latitude he would never again enjoy as an architect. He gave him a substantial architectural problem to solve on an idyllic piece of land. Kahn, in other words, was really the Salk Institute’s very first fellow.

Recent Projects