salk institute teak paneling
The teak paneling surrounding the windows was recently restored. Courtesy of the Getty Conservation Institute.

When one hears the name ‘Salk,’ most people think of Jonas Salk, the man who created the first successful polio vaccine. But when a modernist hears the name ‘Salk,’ their mind goes straight to the architectural showstopper that is the Salk Institute.

First commissioned by Jonas Salk in 1959, the Salk Institute is an expansive laboratory that sits upon the California coast. Salk wanted to create a biological research facility that could serve scientists for generations to come and picked architect Louis Kahn as the man for the job.

salk institute courtyard
The view from the courtyard, looking towards the Pacific Ocean. Courtesy of Salk Institute.

The Salk Institute’s Beginnings

Estonia-born Kahn had previous experience designing an award-winning laboratory for the University of Pennsylvania, and Salk believed him to be the best choice to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.” Kahn completed the Salk Institute in 1965 and it’s still open and in use today.

According to the Salk Institute, “Salk directed Kahn to create spacious, unobstructed laboratory spaces that could be adapted to the ever-changing needs of science. The building materials had to be simple, strong, durable, and as maintenance-free as possible.”

Kahn certainly delivered.

salk institute office
Kahn designed the offices spaces of Salk to be detached from the main laboratory spaces so that scientists would have to walk outside for a breath of fresh air. Courtesy of Salk Institute.

The Salk Institute’s Form

Kahn constructed a laboratory that was made up of 29 different structures, with two six-story main buildings that held the laboratories themselves. Surrounding the labs were smaller towers that held offices and study spaces for scientists and faculty.

blueprint salk institute
A blueprint of Salk— notice the various interconnected structures. Courtesy of ArchDaily.

It was important to Salk that the labs felt bright and inspiring, so Kahn designed them with large, glass-paned walls, allowing the California sunshine to reach every nook and cranny. And because there were two floors underground, Kahn constructed huge light wells to let daylight shine even in the lowest floors.

The Salk Institute was also built to be as maintenance free as possible, so Kahn used sturdy, long-lasting materials like concrete, teak and steel. In fact, the building looks largely the same as it did in the 60s, barring a teak restoration completed in recent years by the Getty Conservation Institute.

The Salk Institute’s Function

Another defining feature of the Salk Institute is its flexibility— with each laboratory having an open, unobstructed layout, the space can easily morph to fit the needs of changing or new sciences.

exterior salk institute
The corridor between the lab spaces and the office and study staircases. Notice the expansive glass paneling surrounding the lab. Courtesy of Form and Field.

This concept is seen in other ways too, as Kahn placed the mechanical systems in areas where they could be easily moved around (instead of behind a wall), built windows that could be unscrewed and constructed support beams that wouldn’t interfere with a space’s future needs.

ArchDaily calls Kahn’s flexible designs a “masterful interplay of material and space,” and his hard work 60 years ago has paid off— over the years, half a dozen Nobel Laureates have worked in the Salk Institute.

view from below salk institute
Looking up from below. Courtesy of Salk Institute.

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