AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn

© Liao Yusheng

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. 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.

More on the Salk Institute after the break.

Before designing, Kahn referenced and studied monasteries in order to build his concept of an “intellectual retreat.” With a prime location in La Jolla, 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.

© Liao Yusheng

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. 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.

© Liao Yusheng

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

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

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. 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: La Jolla, California
Client: Jonas Salk
Project Year: 1959-1965
Photographs: Depending on the photgraph: Liao Yusheng, or on Flickr: Creative Commons: dreamschung, chipm2008, Steven W. Moore, or drawings on
References: Courtesy of Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Design Museum

Cite: Perez, Adelyn. "AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn" 28 May 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 23 May 2015. <>
  • Chris


  • f

    True master of light, shadow and mass.

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

  • Ray

    i like

  • isla

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

  • The Big Black & White Zebra

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

  • jeff

    This group of buildings is so beautiful

  • Dustin

    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

      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:

  • rachel

    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.

  • bluevertical

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

  • Beth Loraine Bowman

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

  • 084hiropii

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

  • GauharJK

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

  • cortebrezo

    AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn

    • Keesha

      This is way better than a brick & mortar esbtalishmnet.

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  • Palau

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

  • wenzel heldens

    timeless 'poverty'RT @bluevertical ▄▀ @NewsArch #architecture #design #modernism *a beautiful classic of modernism

  • Kwangbae Lee

    "Salk Institute / Louis Kahn" 다음 휴가에는 이 곳을 가야겠다. 더 늦기 전에 한 번은 꼭 가야지.

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  • mike

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

  • Jihwan Moon

    Salk Institute – Louis Kahn

  • Mason Kirby

    RT @G_hwan Salk Institute – Louis Kahn