The Salk Institute was established in the 1960s by Jonas Salk, M.D., the developer of the polio vaccine. Salk selected the world-renowned architect Louis I. Kahn as the person who could design the facility that he envisioned.
Jonas Salk had a distinctive vision for the creation of the Institute. He directed the world-renowned architect Louis Kahn to provide 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'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. 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. Together, there are 29 separate structures joined together to form the Institute.
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 special 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.
The open courtyard of travertine marble acting as a facade to the sky adds to the monumental nature of the building. In 1992, the Salk received a 25-Year Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and was featured in the AIA exhibit Structures of Our Time: 31 Buildings That Changed Modern Life. The Salk Institute has been described in the San Diego Union-Tribune as the single most significant architectural site in San Diego.