Inside Salk; Salk Insitute

Cathedrals of Culture

Widely acknowledged as one of the most inspirational works of architecture in the world, the Salk Institute was completed in 1965. But did it do what it set out to do? Is it a scientific monastery that nurtures contemplative research? Does it inspire the scientists within its walls to strive to discover the unknown and to solve the seemingly impossible?

That’s what director Robert Redford set out to explore when he signed on to participate in a project originated by German filmmaker Wim Wenders called Cathedrals of Culture. Wenders challenged himself, Redford and four other directors to each make a short film–not a documentary–revealing the soul of an important building. Could creatively conceived architecture influence both the people within its walls and the work they perform there?

Filming of Cathedrals of Culture

Filming of Cathedrals of Culture

Redford focused on the Salk Institute, the only U.S. building featured in the series of six short films, to answer that question. He began by delving into the relationship between Jonas Salk, the scientist, and Louis Kahn, the architect who designed the Institute. He found that the brilliant men, though often differing in their opinions, did manage to create a building that, in Redford’s words, “epitomizes a design that understands how dramatically creativity drives discovery.”

Upon talking with several of the scientists who work at the Salk Institute, Redford discovered just how much they were influenced on a daily basis by its design. “The connection between them and the building was much deeper than I ever expected,” he said in an interview with Screen. “I could see that there was an organic relationship: the scientists were part of the building and the building was part of their work.”

The six-film Cathedrals of Culture series premiered in Berlin earlier this year to critical acclaim. Featured along with the Salk Institute in the series are the Berlin Philharmonic in Germany, the National Library in Russia, Halden Prison in Norway, the Opera House in Norway, and the Centre Pompidou in France. The Salk Institute film premiered in the United States in October at the Architecture and Design Film Festival in New York. Prior to the New York premier, Redford returned to the Salk Institute in June to share his film, which was shot in 3D and scored by the songwriter and DJ Moby, with a select group of Salk friends and supporters. A panel discussion afterward, led by the film’s writer, Anthony Lappé, provided an opportunity for three of the scientists featured in the film– Tom Albright, Greg Lemke and Clodagh O’Shea–to talk a little more about what the Institute’s architecture means to their work.

Robert Redford

Redford gives an introduction to the film prior to a private screening at the Salk Institute in June.

“When you walk into the courtyard,” Albright explained, “it’s as if the curtains are pulled back on the greatest act of nature: the movement of light across the sky and sea. Being surrounded by nature of this magnitude is incredibly compelling. It makes you consider the properties of the world in which we live. And that inspires the work we do here.”

Lemke pointed out that the building’s open design, one that encourages interaction and collaboration among scientists of varying specialties, was “completely innovative and novel at the time.” Now, he noted, it’s a model for workspaces all over the world. O’Shea added that it’s critical for researchers to “draw on each other’s knowledge, to be reminded of the fundamental truths and elements of nature that join all the sciences.”

Remarking that the Institute “does feel like a cathedral, a sanctuary apart from market forces,” Lappé asked O’Shea if that was important to scientific research. “It’s absolutely essential,” she replied. “Jonas Salk pursued his dream without any commercial interest or backing. And while it’s always hard to take on risky projects like that, you have to persevere. Everything’s impossible until it’s possible.”