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


A Change of Scenery

What a difference a few hours of air travel can do… this past week I’ve come out of hibernation above the 49th parallel and travelled to balmy San Diego. My world was transformed from snow-capped rockies to surf’s up ocean… and was rewarded with some spectacular sights.

Surf's Up
Birds of Paradise
Birds and seals at La Jolla Cove
Palms in Sihouettes
Pacific Sunset

From the ocean to inland, with my Ohio cousin in Thelma and Louise style, we drove through the Mojave Desert, and arrived at Las Vagas. No, not for the slot machines, but was amused to see the town literally painted red celebrating the Chinese New Year: The Year of the Dragon. Here’s a fascinating masterpiece from Jean Philippe Patisserie: A life-size dragon, about 8 feet long and a cherry blossom tree all made of milk, dark, and white chocolate, lanterns of rolling fondants, pearls and flowers of sugar:

The next day, we took a bus tour into Arizona, a five hour drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon… a sight no dragon can match:

The Grand Canyon: view from the South Rim

Fred Harvey, a visionary immigrant from London, started the Fred Harvey Company there in the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. In the late 1800’s to the turn of the century, his company and the Santa Fe Railway changed the scene of hospitality by creating comfortable and reasonably priced tourist facilities and meals. Above all, he had the revolutionary spirit to hire a female architect Mary Colter to design the buildings at a time where the Southwest was dominated by macho inhabitants. Her buildings are all on the National Register of Historic Places today.

Mary Colter was an architectural pioneer. For forty years, she designed for the Fred Harvey Company. Her works blended with the natural environs and the native inhabitants of the Grand Canyon. Her materials were mostly wood and stone, her style rustic. Here’s the Bright Angel Lodge where Harvey offered many women employment opportunities. The waitresses in the dining room were known as Harvey Girls.

Bright Angel Lodge

Another Colter work: The Lookout Studio, which offers a breathtaking vantage point to the Grand Canyon.

Lookout Studio

I was pleasantly surprised to find this plaque at the entrance of the Lookout Studio:

The Grand Canyon Railway begins in Williams, Arizona, and for 60 miles, bring its passengers north through beautiful forest and mountain scenery to their destination at the Grand Canyon. The first passenger train arrived at the Canyon in 1901. During the 1960’s, travel was taken over by the automobile. But today, it has resurfaced as a vibrant mode of tourist attraction.

More sights to share… coming up.