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