| louis kahn | retorical architecture | the architecture that defeats time

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.



Salk Institute4


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.

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.

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.




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: dreamschungchipm2008Steven W. Moore, or
References: www.archdaily.com


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