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  1. ArchDaily
  2. Projects
  3. Institute
  4. United States
  5. Louis Kahn
  6. 1965
  7. AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn

AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn

AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn
AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn, © Liao Yusheng
© Liao Yusheng

© Liao Yusheng © Liao Yusheng © Liao Yusheng AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn +28

  • Architects

  • Location

    10010 N Torrey Pines Rd, San Diego, CA 92037, United States
  • Architect

    Louis Kahn
  • Client

    Jonas Salk
  • References

    Courtesy of Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Design Museum
  • Project Year

  • Photographs

From the architect. Progressing from the International Style, Louis Kahn believed buildings should be monumental and spiritually inspiring. In his design for the Salk Institute, he was successful in creating the formal perfection and emotional expressions that he so vigourously tried to achieve.

© Liao Yusheng
© Liao Yusheng

Kahn was commissioned to design the Salk Institute in 1959 by Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine. Salk's vision included a facility with an inspiring environment for scientific research, and Kahn's design decisions created a functional institutional building that also became an architectural masterpiece.

Site Plan
Site Plan

Before designing, Kahn referenced and studied monasteries in order to build his concept of an "intellectual retreat." With a prime location in La Jolla, California and bordering the Pacific Ocean, Kahn took advantage of the site's tranquil surroundings and abundant natural light. His scheme became a symmetrical plan, two structures mirroring each other separated by an open plaza.


The buildings each have six stories, with the first three floors containing laboratories and the last three with utilities. These spaces are connected to protruding towers that contain spaces for individual studies linked with bridges. 

© Liao Yusheng
© Liao Yusheng

The towers at the east end of the buildings contain heating, ventilating, and other support systems while at the west end the towers are six floors of offices that all face the Pacific ocean, providing a warm tranquil setting for concentration. The separation of the laboratories and the individual study spaces was intended by Kahn, establishing the different activities.


Due to zoning codes, the first two stories had to be underground, sinking the laboratories in the courtyard. In order for these spaces to receive ample sunlight, Kahn designed a series of lightwells on both sides of each building that were 40 feet long and 25 feet wide. The laboratories above ground are also well-lit spaces with large glass panes for their exterior walls.

© Liao Yusheng
© Liao Yusheng

The materials that make up the Salk Institute consist of concrete, teak, lead, glass, and steel. The concrete was poured using a technique studied in Roman architecture. Once the concrete was set, he allowed no further finishing touches in order to attain a warm glow in the concrete. Mechanical spaces are hidden within the building, separating the "served" and "servant" spaces, as Kahn refered to them.

© Liao Yusheng
© Liao Yusheng

The open plaza is made of travertine marble, and a single narrow strip of water runs down the center, linking the buildings to the vast Pacific Ocean.  A person's view is then directed towards nature, reminding people of their scale compared to that of the ocean.

© Liao Yusheng
© Liao Yusheng

The strip of water also enhances the symmetry intended in the plan and creates a sense of monumentality in the otherwise bare open plaza that is meant to be in the words of Luis Barragan "a facade to the sky." Complete with this dignified water element, the Salk Institute is simply put in Kahn's words, "the thoughtful making of space" revealed through such simplicity and elegance that it has since its completion in 1965 been regarded as of the most inspirational works of architecture in the world.

Location to be used only as a reference. It could indicate city/country but not exact address. Cite: Adelyn Perez. "AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn" 28 May 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>
Read comments


Taylor Ro · May 07, 2014

had to use the photos for my high school history project on Dr. Jonas Salk. thank you for the great photos and citation! saved me so much time

Piya Iselin · November 20, 2013

Louis I. Kahn developed a unique Modern style, seen in the Jonas Salk Institute, which is based on the design principles of the Modernist founders Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. The Modern movement became the rule of established order. Modernism is an intricate movement that cannot be broken down and defined in one style, rather it is defined by what the architect perceives as Modern and through a complex set of design principles: the use of Modern materials, focusing on volume, space, and light, abstraction, and rationalism. Mies and Le Corbusier, as a big influence of popular Modernism standards, do not define all of modernism but rather help evolve a unique style of their own to inspire Kahn. Kahn portrays their style principles in his designs through his unique style interpretation.In between time of wars, the iconic architects Mies van der Rohe and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier) wanted to solve for symbolic expression and size, doing so in monumentality. It was a time to preserve values and to suggest continuity with the past while still trying to press forward, giving more than architecture that would satisfy the demands of industry (functional fulfillment). They set the trend of modernism in the form of monumentality, naturally influencing Louis Kahn to follow.

JR · December 27, 2012

this looks like a prison without gates... emperors new clothes if you ask me

Agent Smith · October 28, 2014 09:36 PM

Like a medical lab, it looks steril.

MS · September 24, 2014 09:04 PM

JR - That's exactly what I thought the first time I saw it. It wasn't until I was inside the prison that I was really free to see it.

genta · November 11, 2012

HI,im A student of arch,and i need info about ''monuments and monumentality'' by louis kahn. I was grateful if anyone would help me :d

Tony Stallard · October 28, 2014 02:33 PM

The film "I Architect" is a wonderful look at Mr. Kahn's life. The documentary was produced by his son and is available on Netflix.
Often misunderstood . . . Louis Kahn, remains
one of the most humane of architects in my life.
Anthony Stallard, Architect (ret.)

Andris Amaris · August 28, 2012

AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn | ArchDaily vía @archdaily

IN STUDIO arq. · April 05, 2012

AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn

Tsutomu Chikai · November 17, 2011


Aleisa Mondolfi · June 01, 2011

@ArmandoB Bellisimo no? En la Jolla ,California, Luis Khan lo diseñó en los 60

Greening Modernism · February 21, 2011

Today, 2/20, marks the 110th birth date of Louis I. Kahn, one of the of most prolific architects of the 20th...

Greening Modernism · February 21, 2011
Docomomo Venezuela · February 21, 2011

RT @GreenModernism Today, 2/20, marks the 100th birthday of Louis I. Kahn. The Philadelphia-based architect is...

elemental · February 21, 2011

RT @greenmodernism: Today, 2/20, marks the 100th birthday of Louis I. Kahn #architecture #modernism #preservation

Greening Modernism · February 21, 2011

Today, 2/20, marks the 100th birthday of Louis I. Kahn. The Philadelphia-based architect is responsible for such...

hyde_architects · February 04, 2011

Kahn believed buildings should be monumental and spiritually inspiring. AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn

BenderGarcia · January 31, 2011

@fobloespanola here&#39s some of the buildings of louis kahn i was talking about: via @archdaily

saree ws. ^^ · December 26, 2010

AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn | ArchDaily via @saree_arch

Philippe Sauvie · November 23, 2010

AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn | ArchDaily via @archdaily

Kwangbae Lee · October 30, 2010
Franco Miotto · July 27, 2010

Teoria e Estética II feelings. Ainda sem usuários:

Mason Kirby · July 02, 2010

RT @G_hwan Salk Institute - Louis Kahn

Jihwan Moon · July 02, 2010

Salk Institute - Louis Kahn

mike · May 31, 2010

an architectural masterpiece...i can't even imagine the conversations kahn and barragan were having....

Kwangbae Lee · May 30, 2010

"Salk Institute / Louis Kahn" ?? ???? ? ?? ????. ? ?? ?? ? ?? ? ???.

wenzel heldens · May 30, 2010

timeless &#39poverty&#39RT @bluevertical ?? @NewsArch #architecture #design #modernism *a beautiful classic of modernism

Palau · May 30, 2010

great minds together, should create something beautiful and this is a great example of beauty. It remainds me the alhambra in Spain

cortebrezo · May 29, 2010

AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn

Keesha · December 07, 2011 08:29 PM

This is way better than a brick & mortar esbtalishmnet.

GauharJK · May 29, 2010

RT @bluevertical: Salk Institute by Louis Kahn #architecture #design #modernism *a beautiful classic of modernism

084hiropii · May 29, 2010

RT @bluevertical: Salk Institute by Louis Kahn #architecture #design #modernism *a beautiful classic of modernism

Architecture News · May 29, 2010

RT @bluevertical: Salk Institute by Louis Kahn #architecture #design #modernism *a beautiful classic of modernism

Beth Loraine Bowman · May 29, 2010

Kahn is one of my favorites! RT @bluevertical: Salk Institute by Louis Kahn #architecture #design #modernism

bluevertical · May 29, 2010

Salk Institute by Louis Kahn #architecture #design #modernism *a beautiful classic of modernism

rachel · May 29, 2010

Hands down one of my favorite buildings ever. I got chills when I was there. My then 12 year old sister even understood the moves that Kahn had made. Love it.

Dustin · May 29, 2010

Kahn owes Barragan a lot for the success of this project since it was his idea originally to use the strip of water. Kahn was thinking of trees.

David Basulto · May 29, 2010 06:05 PM

Yes, Kahn tought about using trees, but his friend Luis Barragan told him "I would not put a tree or blade of grass in this space. This should be a plaza of stone, not a garden. If you make this a plaza, you will gain a facade--a facade to the sky."

And sent him this drawing:

<img src=""/>

jeff · May 29, 2010

This group of buildings is so beautiful

The Big Black &amp; White Zebr · May 29, 2010

One of the best ever....
But we never see the laboratories... would like to see these

isla · May 29, 2010

really really timeless architecture, build years ago and still looks fresh

Ray · May 29, 2010

i like

leporello · May 29, 2010

archidaily ?????????????????

f · May 29, 2010

True master of light, shadow and mass.

Project is beginning to show its age, but it's still fantastic.

Chris · May 28, 2010



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© Liao Yusheng

AD 经典: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn