Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA

Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.  — Jonas Salk

American medical researcher and virologist Jonas Edward Salk (1914-1995) discovered the polio vaccine in 1955. In 1960, he founded the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, to create a collaborative environment for exploring the basic principles of life.

Some of the renowned consulting scientists at the conception of the Institute included Warren Weaver, who first coined the term “molecular biology’, and Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the DNA molecule. The Salk Institute remains one of the top research facilities in the world, generating five Nobel Laureates since its inception.

The building of the Salk Institute began in 1962 on 27 acres of pristine land donated by The City of San Diego. The site is endowed with a vantage point 350 feet above the Pacific Ocean on the coastal bluffs of La Jolla.

Jonas Salk commissioned the renowned architect Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) to design the structures: “Create a facility worthy of a visit by Pablo Picasso.” Kahn proficiently rose to the challenge.  The Salk Institute was completed in 1965. In 1992, it received the American Institute of Architects Twenty-Five Year Award.

So much for the objective facts. Here’s my experience.

I joined an architectural tour of the site. As I came to the courtyard, the entrance to the main area, I was confronted with this view. This could well be the most existential space I’d ever set foot on:

What first captivated me was the void in between the two mirrored structures. The buildings on both sides act as a frame to augment the negative space in the middle. That lookout is towards the Pacific Ocean. As I saw it then, it looked like a misty unknown, an entrance towards eternity.  The last part of Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life came to mind.

“Architecture is the reaching out for the truth.” — Louis I. Kahn

Through the massive centre court made of travertine marble flows a stream towards the direction of the ocean, a visual metaphor for life. The water collects into a pool at the end that leads to a small waterfall, then recirculates:

Angled walls offer view from every step:

“The sun never knew how great it was until it struck the side of a building.” — Louis I. Kahn

Like parallel mirrors, concrete walls can form infinite, interesting vantage points:

Every room of the senior scientists looks out into the ocean… for creativity, inspiration, and the view of the greater scheme of things.


At the reception building where we met to begin the tour, I discovered the work of another artist: Dale Chihuly’s glass work The Sun, suspended from the ceiling:

Chihuly’s glasswork is a showcase of colors and vibrancy, depicting visually the exploratory spirit of the Institute. And I think, a wonderful contrast to the minimalist concrete walls around.


As soon as I came back home, I took out a DVD which I’d bought some years now but still haven’t yet watched. How wonderful to have that waiting for me: 2004 Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary, a film by Nathaniel Kahn My Architect: A Son’s Journey.

Son of Louis Kahn and Harriet Pattison, Nathaniel Kahn embarked on a journey to discover the father who died when he was only eleven, a father whom he wishes to have known more before a heart attack ended his life inside a washroom at a New York Subway station.

The film is not only a personal journey, but a reconciliation, a late and poignant search for a father and a son’s identity. Further, it’s a tribute to a great architect from his peers, as his son seeks out those who had known the architect professionally: Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, Frank O. Gehry, Moshe Safdie, Robert A. M. Stern.

It is also about three women and their families who had experienced the joy and pain of being Kahn’s own, a complicated predicament in his life and after his death.

It is also a virtual gallery of the magnificent works situated all over the world. The most impressive to me, other than Salk Institute, is the one on the cover of the DVD, The National Parliament Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

“Design is not making beauty, beauty emerges from selection, affinity, integration, love.” — Louis I. Kahn


All photos of Salk Institute taken by Arti of Ripple Effects, Feb. 2, 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Photo of DVD cover from


Click here to read more about Louis I. Kahn

Click here to see glass artist Dale Chihuly’s works.

Click here to read more about the architecture of Salk Institute

Click here to read more about Salk Institute

Click here to read my review of the film The Tree of Life


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

19 thoughts on “Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA”

  1. Beautiful shots. You really captured the essence of this place. I am not a huge fan of a lot of modern architecture because of how little some of it considers function. This is definitely an exception.
    Seattle is the ultimate place to see Chihuly (his home ground and studio). If you get the chance, visit one of his sea form ceilings and/or floors… Breathtaking…. We have some here in Oklahoma City.
    And that first quote says it all…. Doesn’t it?


    This is a place I can really use the word ‘awesome’, I mean the space, the void in between the buildings. And thanks for the info about Chihuly. The next time I’m in Seattle I’ll be sure to see his works there. I was in Vegas as you know and in the ceiling of the main foyer at the Balagio was a huge display of glass work by Chihuly. Mashed quite well too with all the red lanterns and dragons decorations.



  2. I think your photography is breath-taking! Viewing your photos of the Salk Institute, I felt that i was right there in person experiencing the great architecture of Louis Kahn. And your writing is both beautiful and educational. I am delighted to have found your blog.
    Architecture is one of my passions and I loved that documentary created by Kahn’s son. Boy, how i wish the home or mall builders in my area understood good architecture and would use it more often.
    “I suspect my dear, you are a treasure!”
    [Borrowed from the movie “Now Voyager” – spoken by Bette Davis to her mother’s nurse.]


    Thank you for your kind words and lovely quote, sure brought me a big smile… considering how much I love movie quotes. 🙂 I agree with you, seems like I have to go far to see good architecture. Kahn was an artist first before he became an architect. He had integrated well indeed: function, form and aesthetics. Thanks again for stopping by and sharing your view.



  3. The Salk Institute is one of my favorite places in San Diego. I’ve visited it many times since my daughter moved out there 2 years ago. I’ve even gone on their tour twice, but reading your post and seeing your photos have brought my appreciation for the place to a whole new level. You write with such poignancy and your photography is so exquisite that they moved me to tears. Bravo, Arti! I can’t wait to watch the DVD


    I appreciate your moving comment and thanks for your kind words. This is only my first time visiting Salk Institute, and I trust it’s the kind of space that I’ll never tire of seeing. I’m sure I’ll be gleaning new insights with every visit. As for the DVD, probably you can find it in your local library. I think you’ll find it informative and interesting.



  4. Is there nothing you can’t write about? I truly enjoy your clear, critical (in the best, and true sense of the word) analysis of everything from literature to philosophy to architecture.


    You talkin’ to me? 😉 You’re too generous! But this thing is true: I find it’s much easier to write about things that I’m passionate about. Thanks so much for your encouraging words.



  5. Wonderful photography Arti. One of my suite mates in College grew up in La Jolla. I wish I would have explored it more in my years of living in Southern California. You are a great writer!


    Thanks and lucky for you… you can always go there since you live so close by. And Seattle too, as Michelle mentioned in her comment, when you’re there the next time, do check out Dale Chihuly’s glass work. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them.



  6. As you were writing a comment in my blog I was reading the link you gave me, to the blog on Novel Destinations. Thanks it looks quite interesting. We saw Hugo in 3D – very good movie. I thought it was the Gare du Nord and researched it. Yes the movie and historical documents pertained by 80% to that station. We also saw The Artists and The Descendants. I like all these films.
    I saw the Quiet American when it came out. I think at the time I had just read some French documents saying that the French wanted to get out of Indochina but the American gave them money to stay with the conflict. I remember that the movie made me cry – I mean about the political implications – my parents had friends who died in the battle of Diên Biên Phu. I bought the book last year and it is still on my shelf, not read yet.

    The chocolate dragon is outstanding – but in the Nevada sun? Your pictures of San Diego and the Grand Canyon are lovely – I have not been there yet. The architecture of the Salk Institute Building reminded me of some grey walls I saw in New York City in a park near the 9/11 site – all very stark. I am reading “Shakespeare and Company” right now by Sylvia Beach – have you read it?


    1. Vagabonde,

      Yes, we’ve been busy virtual visiting but not bumping into each other. I’m glad you’ve the chance to watch those movies. Hugo is a good use of the 3D effects, an interesting take on the Gare du Nord… as you say. The Artist too is a unique production. The Descendants is probably the more traditional but a decent film with good acting. A few more to go and you’re all set for Oscar night. 😉

      As for The Quiet American, I’m sure you’ll find the book deeper and touch on more complex issues than the film can portray, albeit it’s a good movie. I think you’ll find it even more intense and engaging than the movie and marvel at the economy of words and descriptions under Greene’s skilful writing.

      The chocolate dragon? It’s inside the Aria hotel, where the Jean Philippe Patisserie is located. I should have photographed it with a person standing next to it to show its scale… like you put the book beside the pecans.

      I’ve been to the Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, bought a couple of books there but no, haven’t read the one written by Sylvia Beach. Now that George Whitman has passed, maybe they need to promote the Beach book to keep the legacy alive. I’d like to read it some day.


  7. Beautiful photography as ever Arti! We have one of Chihuly’s sculptures suspended from the ceiling in the artrim of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It’s quite amazing as is the one you saw.


    I’m just starting to explore all the fantastic works of Chihuly’s. Certainly is nice to have one in town for you. I’m sure Minneapolis offers many more varieties of arts as well. Fortunate for you!



  8. This is a beautiful and fascinating building. I have heard of the Salk Institute, didn’t know much about it. This sculpture reminds me of many I’ve seen here at Meijer Garden both as a chandelier and freestanding (but much taller). I love his work; it’s just beautiful.


    I’m glad you concur about the site of Salk Institute and Chihuly’s works. I really treasure these short trips, albeit it’s not easy for me to get away nowadays. I’m excited about my discovery on this one.



  9. Fascinating post! What intrigued me was how inhuman the architecture is, nothing curved or gentle, nothing elaborated or decorated, which seems strange for a biological institute. But then I guess this particular era of biology has been about stripping the body down to its fundamental components. So it probably is most appropriate. I bet it’s a nicer building to work in and look out of, than to look at. Although I’ll bet it’s very impressive, sort of like the pyramids!


    What mesmerized me was the void, the negative space. And I thought, wow, that’s ingenious designs, ie, creating two symmetric buildings on either side to bring out the ocean, like a portal towards the unknown… to explore new worlds. I agree I’m not too keen on the concrete materials, but I was simply overwhelmed by the middle part, and the stream of water flowing through the court.



  10. It’s good isn’t it, to come home from a trip, full of — more than one can say — about a place, about art, about whatever — wherever or however formed? It’s out there waiting for us — and all we have to do is show up and join the party — and allow it to move us toward response.

    Oh, Arti, I enjoyed your response very much. I’m glad you had an inspiring getaway with your cousin. As Michelle said, our Museum of Art in OKC exhibits Dale Chihuly’s glass works — in its atrium is a fine sculpture — and on its third floor, a word-stopping exhibit.

    Your use of the words ‘negative space,’ which I endeavor to use in design of my gardens and landscape, must apply to all the arts. They are the words not spoken in film or books — space not filled in architecture and landscapes — and all this open space allows light to shimmer through, doesn’t it? I wonder — is it the use of negative space, through which we point at something greater?

    No need to answer the question — today is on my own time in the sun to explore new places and things — we set off for the Keys in just a few minutes!


    1. Janell,

      While I might have known intellectually the notion of negative space, this is the first time I experience it. And this site is a good illustration of how negative space, how the void, can be more dynamic than the built structures.

      In my review of Dreidre Madden’s book Molly Fox’s Birthday, I’ve quoted the narrator of the story, a playwright pondering on this concept:

      “Sometimes, on stage, not showing something can be more powerful than showing it.”

      And that’s exactly what I’m learning and attempting to do. Silence sometimes can speak volumes…


  11. Apparently I’m not a modernist. Concrete and minimalist leaves me as cold and bare of response as the buildings before me. I tried to imagine working in the Salk Institute, and all I could imagine was a desire to flee at the end of the day. Perhaps it’s better in person.

    On the other hand, I was overwhelmed with gratitude at the memory of Salk himself, the one who took away our fear with his new vaccine. So many of my young chums were polio victims – it was a terrible, terrible disease, and whatever I think of his building, I will honor the man and those who continue such work without reservation.

    As for Chihuly? Marvelous! There was an exhibit at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix that was just stunning. There’s a permanent exhibit there now of a yucca-like piece – it makes me smile every time I see the image!


    1. While I can’t detail every single fact about the building here, and it’s not my intention either, such as how it’s an exemplar of pure form, how it’s designed from the inside out and functional, or that its concrete material has the intended ageing effects, and the intricacies of the angles allowing views from every room… I treasure my own personal experience the most. And my first impression as I, a minute being facing the huge scale and the massive void at the end of the courtyard, just gave me chills.

      If I were working there, I don’t think I’d flee at the end of the day. Rather, I’d probably hope that was my home so I could be so near to the ocean and inhabit such a beautiful space. Mind you, what I didn’t show were the greeneries… maybe I should have. 😉

      Yes, you’re right, it’s definitely a very different era from the fluid style of Frank Gehry, whom as you know, is one of my all time favorite artists.


      1. Just read your reply to Janelle re: negative space, and there, I’m all with you. The tension between sound and silence, speech and silence, paint and canvas, description and imagination is the great connector between all of the arts. Architecture, too – and now that I think of it, scale is an issue. It’s hard to show a building in a post, just as it’s hard to replicate the effect of a gallery-hung painting with a blog illustration.

        That’s why we need real life as well as cyber-life! And here’s a thought: is it lack of negative space that makes Twitter and Facebook less appealing to some of us?


  12. I had no idea about the Salk Institute — amazing vistas. Your photos really pique my interest in visiting the place. Especially getting to see a Chihuly in person. I first heard the name in the rose forums [bet you’re not surprised] as there was a rose named after him. Then one of the forumers posted a display of his works at Central Park. Thank you for sharing your fantastic images.


    That is so interesting! I must admit I haven’t heard of the ‘rose forum’ or that there’s a rose named after Chihuly. O, I must find out more. Thanks for letting me know!



  13. That central (the first of your picture) vista is breathtaking–one could be falling off the face of the earth. Perhaps it’s a reminder of just how tiny we are in the grand scheme of Nature? Certainly it feels humbling to look at. The Chihuly sculpture is a wonderful counterpoint–such vibrant color.

    Thank you for this, Arti. I would likely never have seen the Salk Institute if not for you (and such a sad, shabby way for Mr. Kahn to have died).


    1. I’m really curious to know your architect friend’s reaction to the Salk Institute. 😉 Thanks for stopping by! Hope you two have enjoyed the visit.


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