Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute is aging — very, very gracefully

Louis kahn's salk institute is aging — very, very gracefully

The U.S. may not have awe-inducing ancient temples of the sort you see in Athens, Rome or Mexico City, but we have produced modern ones. Foremost among them: the Salk Institute in La Jolla.

Perched dramatically on a hillside above the roaring Pacific Ocean, the nonprofit research complex, completed in 1965, was designed by Modernist architect Louis Kahn. His symmetrical, saw-tooth arrangement of brut concrete buildings frames a brilliant travertine plaza devised by Mexican architect Luis Barragán. The entire composition feels like entering a procession — one that dissolves in an endpoint where ocean meets sky.

Its function may be for science, but Kahn’s structures feel more like a temple to nature. Walk across the plaza, bisected by a gurgling channel of water, and it will come as little surprise that over the course of its life, the Salk has been been hailed as “San Diego’s anonymous Taj Mahal.”

Anonymous because even though it is an icon of Modern architecture, it maintains a relatively low profile: Invisible from the street, only revealing itself once you enter the Salk campus, it’s the sort of place that isn’t stumbled upon. You have to seek it out.

“I go there practically every time I’m in San Diego,” says Annabelle Selldorf, the New York-based architect who is designing the renovation and expansion for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego in La Jolla. “It reflects an understanding of science and the simultaneity of working together and working in solitude. It reflects our desire to be in contact with nature, but also a very refined thinking about tactility and materials. I find it so inspiring.”

It has been a little more than 50 years since Kahn completed the task set before him by his client, Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the first successful polio vaccine, to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.” […]

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