The Salk Institute: Architectural Wonder

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is a premier independent, non-profit, scientific research institute. It was founded in 1960 by Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine. The institute consistently ranks among the top institutions in the US in terms of research output and quality in the life sciences. The institute employs 850 researchers in 60 research groups and focuses its research in three areas: Molecular Biology and Genetics, Neurosciences, and Plant Biology. Research topics include cancer, diabetes, birth defects, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, AIDS, and the neurobiology of American Sign Language. The Institute has been supported over the years by funds awarded to its members in the form of research grants most from the National Institutes of Health, and from private foundations and individuals. Especially important has been the continued support of the March of Dimes which, in addition to funds for the original structure, has contributed significantly every year to the Institute’s financial needs.

Salk came to La Jolla following a career in clinical medicine and virology research. The success of his polio vaccine in 1955 made Salk an international hero. Salk’s dream was to create an independent research center where a community of scholars interested in different aspects of the biology-the study of life – could come together to follow their curiosity.

Salk had sought to make a beautiful campus in order to draw the best researchers in the world. In the early 1960s, 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. Salk summarized his aesthetic objectives by telling the architect to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.” Kahn, who was a devoted artist before he became an architect, responded to this challenge.

Michael Duff of the Kahn firm was the supervising architect and major design influence on the structure that consists of two symmetric buildings with a stream of water flowing in the middle of a courtyard that separates the two. The buildings themselves have been designed to promote collaboration, and thus there are no walls separating laboratories on any floor. The concrete was made with volcanic ash relying on the basis of ancient Roman concrete making techniques, and as a result gives off a warm, pinkish glow. A diagonal wall allows each of the thirty-six scientists using the studies to have a view of the Pacific, and every study is fitted with a combination of operable sliding and fixed glass panels in teak wood frames.

The Salk Institute: Architectural Wonder

Salk and Kahn approached the city of San Diego in March 1960 and requested a gift of land on the Torrey Pines Mesa overlooking the Pacific Ocean and the land was provided after a referendum in June 1960.

Construction began in 1962 and soon thereafter the Salk Institute for Biological Studies became a reality. When the first laboratory was opened in 1963, there were five senior scientists and their research teams. Additional buildings housing more laboratories as well as the organizational administrative offices were constructed in the 1990s, designed by Anshen & Allen.

The original buildings of the Salk Institute were designated as a historical landmark in 1991. In 1992, the Salk received a 25-Year Award from the American Institute of Architects. The entire 27-acre site was deemed eligible by the California Historical Resources Commission in 2006 for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

The organization of the Institute has evolved with time to its present structure, consisting of a board of trustees,  a president and CEO, an academic council, and a chairman of the faculty.

Salk’s personal research activities included multiple sclerosis and autoimmune diseases, cancer immunology, improved manufacture and standardization of killed poliovirus vaccine, and the development of an AIDS vaccine. He published several philosophical books and advocated cooperative rather than confrontational approaches to addressing human needs.

Although not a degree-granting institution, the Salk has trained more than 2,000 scientists. Many have gone on to positions of leadership in other prominent research centers worldwide. Five of the scientists trained here have won the Nobel Prize. Four of the Institute’s current resident faculty members and three nonresident fellows are Nobel Laureates.

Salk died at age 80 on June 23, 1995. A memorial at the Institute with a statement from Salk captures his vision: “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”

Salk Institute is offering a free guided architectural tour Monday through Friday at noon. Requests for reservations have required a minimum of two business days in advance of the date requested. The tour will cover everything from the philosophy (light, silence, order) to the functionality (an extra interstitial space between each floor of laboratories allows the flexibility to rearrange lab space) to the outdoor grounds, which were designed to represent the circularity of existence. The tour is relatively easy but does include stairs and the option to look inside the interstitial space between floors. Anyone with an interest in architecture should really take advantage of this opportunity to tour what architectural critics call one of the greatest works of our time.

Stop and see the stunning architecture at the Salk Institute when you stay at The Shoal La Jolla Beach Hotel.


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