Salk Design Is Still Tops in San Diego

In a city where some architects seem to have a hard time tailoring projects to our spot on the globe, architect Louis Kahn found such a response inevitable.

The Salk Institute, designed by Kahn to house an elite think tank under the guidance of polio vaccine creator Dr. Jonas Salk, is perhaps the most perfect building in San Diego. With fortuitous help from city fire codes and a fellow architect, Kahn managed a design that seems the ultimate marriage of those elusive (and not always friendly) counterparts: form and function.

Early in Kahn’s career, when he taught architecture at Yale in the ‘50s, he did more lecturing than actual design work. But the Richards Medical Research Building in Philadelphia, completed in 1961, gained him international recognition as a practicing architect, and helped him land the Salk commission. Many architectural fanatics believe the Salk Institute, completed in 1965, was the finest done by Kahn, who died in 1974.

In some ways, Kahn was an early bridge between the stark modernism of his day and more recent attempts to get some romance, warmth and humor back into architecture. His training at the University of Pennsylvania in the classical tradition of the French Beaux Arts school gave him a more romantic agenda than some of his modern peers. The Salk Institute combines modernism’s hard-edged simplicity with softer touches, like the sliding teak windows that let in generous quantities of fresh air and sunlight.


Marble Courtyard

Kahn worshipped light. The Salk Institute literally sculpts it in the most dramatic ways. The project is rigidly ordered around its stark travertine marble courtyard, through which a narrow channel of water heads toward the Pacific.

Prominent landscape architects including Lawrence Halprin tried to design a more elaborate scheme for this central space, but Mexican architect Luis Barragan eventually convinced Kahn to leave it bare, “a facade to the sky,” recalled Peter Kaack, one of three draftsman hired to prepare working drawings of Kahn’s masterpiece during construction. Today, Kaack is a project coordinator for Earl L. Walls Associates in San Diego, which specializes in outfitting laboratory buildings.

Study cubicles with the large teak-framed sliding windows are stacked in towers around the courtyard, angled to catch the ocean view and breezes. Kaack said the project’s shipment of imported teak was the largest ever in the United States. Kahn chose the wood because its high oil content withstands the biting seaside exposure and because, when it weathers, it takes on gray tones, perfect to go with a concrete building.

Kaack pointed out how the cubicles only occupy every other floor. The spaces in between let natural light filter back into the laboratories. Because Kahn didn’t want the buildings to rise higher than the adjacent eucalyptus grove, he put one floor below grade to get the necessary space. Even there, working conditions are excellent. Courtyards outside these basement labs give researchers natural light instead of the usual cold fluorescence.

Most of the project’s circulation is via outdoor covered corridors. Even the staircases are open, and their concrete shapes, seen from different angles at different times of day, create a rich variety of compositions with shadows and light. Originally, Kaack recalled, Kahn had wanted large sliding doors at the foots of the staircases, but city fire codes required more open access. Instead of doing an elaborate redesign, Kahn saw the light and just left them open.

The concrete work at Salk is meticulous. Small V-shaped beads accent the large panels. Kaack recalled how Fred Langford from Kahn’s office did hundreds of drawings detailing every square inch. A urethane coating in the concrete forms gave the walls their soft sheen.

In earthquake-prone California, Kahn was ahead of his time. The institute actually consists of 26 separate structures anchored to oversized concrete foundations. Through the years, occasional temblors have caused nary a crack, and even some old, non-shatterproof glass didn’t shatter.

As impressive as the way the building treats its occupants is the way it has met the institute’s changing laboratory needs over the years. Kahn sandwiched 9-foot-high mechanical cores between floors. All utilities--electricity, water, compressed air, toxic waste evacuation--are contained here, and are easily tapped from ceiling slots in the lab spaces.

Changes Are Easy

Kaack, with his broad experience in such research facilities, knows just how well the Salk Institute works. Most such buildings house mechanical functions in 3- or 4-foot ceiling spaces, accessible only by ladder from the labs below. To make a significant change in configuration, the lab might be inoperable for several days. At Salk, workers can stand in the mechanical bays and make appropriate reconfigurations. New hookups are then made in short order through the ceiling slots.

Kahn’s admirable foresight was in evidence a few years back when the institute decided to add bulky, heavy cogeneration equipment. Space, power, and ventilation were all adequate without changing a thing, according to Kaack.

Even the front gate of rusted out Korr-Ten, with its stainless steel hardware, is artful. In fact, only two small flaws can be found at the institute: the inappropriate railings added near the water spills at the west end, and the curving seminar rooms added inside the south building, which, although said to be very functional, don’t seem in keeping with Kahn’s vision.

On any given day, people with cameras can be found wandering the courtyard, staring up at the majestic concrete fins at the edges of the research cubicle towers. They wander along the channel of water and look out at the ocean. They run a hand over the sensual concrete.

Kaack was asked whether, over the years, he has been equally impressed with any other San Diego buildings.

“I’m afraid I have seen architecture that was done just because architects wanted to be different,” he said. “I personally haven’t found anything really exciting.”

DESIGN NOTES: San Diego Home/Garden’s ’89 Home of the Year award, presented at the Catamaran last Friday, went to a La Jolla cottage tastefully remodeled by architect Mark Steele of M. W. Steele Inc. and his wife, Dale, a partner in the firm. Peter Jensen, the magazine’s editor, called it “a very contemporary house that returns to the sense of courtyard living without being Spanish.” Several other homes were honored by the magazine, many of them small custom houses and remodels. . . . Visions ’89, the New School of Architecture’s Thursday spring lecture series, begins Jan. 26, 7 p.m., with L.A. architect Coy Howard, at the school (1249 F St.). . . . Designer David Fobes did the subtle yet saucy interior of the new ABC Books store on G Street in downtown San Diego. Check out the store’s ever-increasing inventory of architecture books, and Fobes’ inventive use of wall texturing and other materials.