Jonas Salk commissioned the renowned Philadelphia architect Louis I Kahn to design his new Institute for Biological Studies in 1959. Together they collaborated and designed a facility uniquely suited to scientific research. This competition invites architecture students to imagine the next chapter in the life of one of America’s architectural treasures, which was designated a Historic Landmark in 1991. This challenge asks designers how the preservation of these extraordinary buildings can provoke a profound rethinking of our current conventions about composition, construction, and building performance. The aim is to envision a new type of facility that would be unimaginable without the existing structures.
“Materials used are concrete, wood, marble and water. Concrete is left with exposed joints and formwork markings. Teak and glass infill in the office and common room walls....The laboratories may be characterized as the architecture of air cleanliness and area adjustability. The architecture of the oak table and the rug is that of the studies.”
— Louis I. Kahn. from Heinz Ronner, with Sharad Jhaveri and Alessandro Vasella Louis I. Kahn: Complete Works 1935-74. p164.165.
The Salk Institute History
The Salk Institute was established in the 1960s by Jonas Salk, M.D., the developer of the polio vaccine. His goal was to establish an institute that would explore questions about the basic principles of life. He wanted to make it possible for biologists and others to work together in a collaborative environment that would encourage them to consider the wider implications of their discoveries for the future of humanity. Salk selected the world-renowned architect Louis I. Kahn as the person who could design the facility that he envisioned.
The Salk Institute campus represents a unique blend of form and function. Overlooking the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla, California, the campus originally supported 57 faculty members and a scientific staff of more than 850 doing powerful biological research. Kahn’s creation consists of two mirror-image structures that flank a grand courtyard. Each building is six stories tall. Three floors contain laboratories and the three levels above the laboratory floors provide access to utilities. These unobstructed laboratory spaces can be adapted to the ever-changing needs of science. Protruding into the courtyard are separate towers that provide space for individual professorial studies. The towers at the east end of the buildings contain heating, ventilating, and other support systems. At the west end are six floors of offices overlooking the ocean. In total, there are 29 separate structures joined together to form the Institute. The iconic open courtyard of travertine marble serves as a facade to the sky adds to the monumental nature of the campus.
You can see the impact of Kahn’s architecture in the courtyard. Important to note are Kahn’s imaginative use of space and his high regard for natural light. In response to Salk’s request that the Institute provide a welcoming and inspiring environment for scientific research, Kahn flooded the laboratories with daylight. He built all four outer walls of the laboratory levels out of large, double-strength glass panes, producing an open, airy work environment. Local zoning codes restricted the height of the buildings so that the first two stories had to be underground. This did not, however, prevent the architect from bringing in daylight: he designed a series of light wells 40 feet long and 25 feet wide on both sides of each building to bring daylight into the lowest level.
The collaboration between Louis Kahn and Jonas Salk produced a design for a facility uniquely suited to scientific research. The next challenge was to realize it through the use of materials that could last for generations with only minimal maintenance. The materials chosen for this purpose were concrete, teak, lead, glass, and steel. The poured-in-place concrete walls create the first bold impression for visitors. Kahn actually went back to Roman times to rediscover the waterproof qualities and the warm, pinkish glow of “pozzuolanic” concrete. Once the concrete was set, he allowed no further processing of the finish—no grinding, no filling, and above all, no painting. The architect chose an unfinished look for the teak surrounding the study towers and west office windows, and he directed that no sealer or stain be applied to the teak. The building’s exterior, with only minor required maintenance, today looks much as it did in the 1960s.
Kahn conceived the institute’s multiple buildings as interrelated programs. All share the function to provide inspiration to the user. Kahn designed the space to inspire the researchers and provide a productive environment for scientific study.
Within the original design schemes by Louis Kahn and Jonas Salk were more than just the buildings that are in place today. They planned for an expansion of the labs, residential facilities for the scientists, and a conference center. In 1995 the East Building opened, design by Anshen + Allen Architects, which contains labs, auditorium, and multipurpose spaces.
SALK INSTITUTE THE NEXT CHAPTER
The Salk Institute has been a highly successful research facility, but the changing landscape of science requires an evolution of the campus; along with respect of the architectural and historic integrity of the site. The Institute is no longer an entity unto itself. It is surrounded by University of California San Diego, a thriving biotechnology/pharmaceutical industry, and other non-profit research institutions. The Institute’s need for space has increased. The original building was anticipated to accommodate 300 people. Today, the Institute’s staff members number 1,200.
Science and scientists have changed dramatically in the last four decades. Technology has evolved and now benefits from the completion of the human genome project, computerization and the use of data centers, and new methods of magnetic and optical imaging to view molecules and cells. The population of scientists is more diverse than ever. Battle for the best and brightest scientific minds has increased significantly. The Institute competes with other premier research institutions, as well as biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, to recruit top scientists. According to the Salk Institute’s Master Plan “Our successful recruitment efforts are dependent on having state-of-the-art research facilities and equipment, as well as ancillary support systems that allows our scientists to focus on their work.”
Embrace the design scheme and intent of the original master plan. The design of Salk and Kahn’s original master plan will be realized. The following three distinct areas of the campus will fulfill their original intent to provide a place for science, facilities to support the Institute, and amenities to support the needs of scientists and employees.
I. Science Center currently includes the original laboratory building and courtyard, and the East Building (constructed in 1995). The competition proposes two new facilities for the Science Center: (1) New/Additional Laboratory Space – To relieve overcrowding in the existing laboratories and to house specialized equipment that is shared among scientists; (2) Green Houses – To support plant biology programs.
II. Campus Community Center will support the science and operational needs of the Institute. This building should include a library, conference facilities (multi-purpose space for meetings), offices, dining facility/lounge, and employee exercise facilities. Due to space constraints, many employees are currently located in rented space off-campus.
III. Residential Facilities will provide space for scientists in residence.
Environmental Responsibilities Current social attitudes require that technology be environmentally friendly. New technologies need to be integrated to enhance the environmental responsiveness of the historic buildings without undermining Kahn’s design intent and the learning experience it has to offer. Incorporate innovative and existing sustainable technology into the existing buildings in an aesthetically responsible way, and integrate sustainable design in all additions or new buildings.