The Salk Institute

Something happened recently that I didn’t see coming … I visited a building that I had known about since college, seen a million and one pictures of the project, but truly didn’t appreciate until I walked the space and experienced the building.

Isn’t this what the power of architecture is all about? Visiting this project reaffirmed many things for me, number one on that list is that you need to visit these projects in person if you truly want to understand how they work.

Salk Institute visitor pass

There isn’t an architect on the planet that is unaware of the Salk Institute1, Louis Kahn’s 1965 masterpiece of brutalist architecture. I heard someone on my tour mention (and get it wrong) that this was a “brutalist” project because it was extreme in nature, ergo “brutal”. I need to set the record straight on this … Brutalist architecture, sometimes simply called “brutalism”, isn’t called this because it’s “brutal”. Originating from the French words for raw (brut) and concrete (béton), the term “Brutalism” was adapted by British architectural critic Reyner Banham2. Banham went on to say that brutalism was not a style, but rather the expression of an atmosphere among architects of the time reflecting “moral seriousness.”

I love that … moral seriousness, such an architectural thing to say.

At any rate, this is not a history post but rather a reflection on the power that architecture can have on a person and of a place. There are umpteen hundreds of books dedicated to the Salk Institute and the work of Louis Kahn (I’ve included just a few down at the bottom) so rather than regurgitate the work of others, I thought I would share some photos from my time at the Salk.

The Salk Institute - "The View"

Salk Institute - looking the other way

The material palette is incredibly refined and simple. Exposed concrete, travertine slabs, glass, and teak wood – all of which add their own level of texture and color on a micro scale, but work together extremely well to create a feeling of monolithic feeling at a macro scale.  The Salk has just completed a complete renovation of the teak wood panels and despite this building opening over 50 years ago, the entire place looks brand new.

The Salk Instituteq

There is a plaza centered between the two main structures (there are actually 5 main structures – they just look like 2) that is resplendent in a methodical arrangement of travertine slabs – we have Luis Barragán to thank that this plaza didn’t get filled with trees.

The Salk Institute

There is a narrow channel cut through the center of the plaza where water runs it’s length and then is collected into this water feature. While it is a lovely feature, “the life symbol of flowing water relates to the activities of the workers in this institution and is visually connected visually with the distant sea.3” I didn’t get that while I was on site, I just appreciated that it reinforced the symmetry of the two lab buildings and took on the role of visually orienting device that drove your line of sight beyond the plaza as framed by these two buildings, out to the horizon, creating a sense that there is something beyond, something much larger than the space you are currently occupying.

… but maybe that’s just me.

The Salk Institute

The Salk Institute - Looking Up

A closer look at the concrete stair towers with the teak wood panels.

Salk Institute exterior ring and labs 02

All of these windows look into the laboratories and from a design consideration, they are all held in place with screws so that they can be easily removed to allow for lab equipment to be moved in and out without and destructive work. It is a level of flexibility that allows these labs to evolve over time to accommodate things that didn’t (and don’t) currently exist.

Salk Institute exterior ring labs 01

There are doors exiting out of the labs onto a walkway that essentially laps the building … except as far as I could tell nobody uses them as there were desks and shelving in front of every single one of them.

Salk Institute exterior ring labs and exterior stairwells

Vertical circulation occurs outside the laboratory buildings in the sixteen stair towers (four per side per building) and they are the masses that generally define the Salk for what we all recognize.

Salk Institute exterior ring labs and exterior stairwells

An isolated look at one of the plaza-side stair towers.

Salk Institute scupper detail

As I was ignoring the docent who was leading my tour, I was down on my hands and knees looking at the lead scuppers that were cast into the concrete walkways connecting the stair towers to the laboratory building. Look how cool this thing is!! The fact that this wasn’t even mentioned by my docent told me that a) I didn’t need to listen anymore, and b) they should realize that the vast majority of the people who come to the Salk want to know about the architecture – particularly these sorts of details.

Salk Institute covered breezeway 02

A look down through the stair towers – an amazing play of light and shadows that was constantly changed during the 90 minutes I spent exploring the exterior.

The Salk Institute - base of the concrete stairwell

At the base of each stair tower is a concrete plane that is at a 45° angle to the towers themselves. (Ironically, as I was taking this picture, I heard my docent point out that “everything was built at right angles.” Really?)

Not to dogpile my docent, she is probably someone’s beloved grandmother, but she said loads of things that left me scratching my head. To her credit, I can’t think of anything more miserable than giving a tour of an architectural masterpiece, and all the people on that tour are know-it-all architects.


Nonetheless, while we were standing at the bottom of this stair tower, she asked us to feel the concrete. So I did … and it felt like concrete.

Docent: “Okay everyone, I want everyone to take a moment and feel the concrete.”

Bob: [feeling concrete]

Docent: “What do you feel?”

Bob [mumbling] “… I feel concrete.”

Docent: “It’s smooth, isn’t it.”

Bob: “Yeah, it’s pretty smooth.”

Docent: “That’s because Louis Kahn4 added ash to the concrete mix … to make it smooth.”

Wait. What?!? Fly ash has been added to concrete for 70+ years and as far as I know, it is the formwork that delivers a smooth surface, not the ash. Since I am me and I couldn’t leave this alone, I pulled out one of my Kahn books when I returned home and read that the ash was added to lighten the color of the concrete so that it more closely resembled the travertine. Furthermore, I went to the National Precast Concrete Association and did some additional research to see if I could find out whether the use of ash produces a smoother surface.  Nope – couldn’t find anything … but did confirm that one of the attributes of adding ash to concrete is to lighten the color.

The Salk Institute concrete stairs

Cast-in-place concrete stairs with travertine slabs as the tread and the nosing.

The Salk Institute concrete stairs

A look down the stair tower – it’s easy to see how the travertine tread sits atop the cast-in-place concrete stairs. The construction of the building is clearly on display, one of the hallmarks of brutalist architecture.

Salk Institute exterior stairwells

Since my docent (as nice as she appeared) was delivering a tour full of factual oversights, I took her comment of “don’t go up the stairs to the second level” as “It’s okay to go up the stairs to the second level.” It was lunchtime and the place was surprisingly and extraordinarily empty of people, so I ran up the stairs to get this next view …

Salk Institute exterior concrete stair towers

… totally worth it by the way.

I have always enjoyed Kahn’s work and if you were to ask me what my favorite building was, I would have told you that it was the Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum (evidence as stated on my FAQ page). My familiarity with the Salk notwithstanding, it would not have been very high on my list prior to my visit. For the first time in my life, I went in thinking one way and came away with a complete revelation into how amazing this building and the surrounding spaces are … unbelievable.

You have to experience this building because you won’t get it until you see it for yourself.

I have a handful of Kahn books and I’ve listed a few of my favorites down below

Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis Kahn

Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn
Authored by Louis Kahn and Sam Lobell

Light is the Theme: Louis I. Kahn and the Kimbell Art Museum

Light is the Theme: Louis I. Kahn and the Kimbell Art Museum
Authored by Nell E. Johnson, Louis Kahn, and Eric Lee

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture
Authored by William Curtis

Louis Kahn Essential Texts

Louis I. Kahn: Essential Texts
Authored by Louis Kahn and Robert Twombley


I really hope that you will consider a trip to visit this building for yourself. It isn’t that often that a building can affirm that the best at what we do have the ability to take inanimate objects and bring them to life.


Bob signature FAIA


1 I struggled in this post trying to figure out the best way to refer to this project. Around my office, it would simply be called “Salk” or “the Salk” depending on the context. Officially it is the “Salk Institute for Biological Studies”

2 Before Banham coined the term “Brutalism”, it was Hans Asplund who is credited with creating the Swedish term “nybrutalism” which translates into “new brutalism” … and how you can have “new brutalism” before “brutalism” is beyond me, and I don’t have any books in my library that cleared this timeline up for me.

3 Louis I. Kahn; The Idea of Order; Klaus-Peter Gast, page 65

4 Only non-architects say “Louis Kahn”. It’s either “Kahn” or Lou Kahn”.

Source: Life of an Architect