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, 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.

© 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 , teak, lead, glass, and steel. The was poured using a technique studied in Roman architecture. Once the was set, he allowed no further finishing touches in order to attain a warm glow in the . 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 21 Sep 2014. <>


  1. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    True master of light, shadow and mass.

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

  2. Thumb up Thumb down 0

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

  3. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    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.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +6

      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:

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    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.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down 0

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

  6. Thumb up Thumb down 0

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

  7. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    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

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    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.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    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

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