After years of study, architecture conservation efforts begin at Salk Institute of Biological Studies

The Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) announced today that after three years of research, construction work is underway to conserve key architectural elements of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. The site, completed in 1965 and designed by famed architect Louis Kahn, is widely considered to be a masterpiece of modern architecture. After fifty years in an exposed marine environment, the institute’s distinct teak window walls, set within the monolithic concrete walls of the site’s study towers and offices, have weathered to a non-uniform appearance and are deteriorated. The construction work, designed by Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., and anticipated to be completed in spring 2017, will address these issues. Getty-led research and funding launched in 2013 as part of the GCI’s Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative (CMAI) helped to initiate the construction work currently underway.

After years of study, architecture conservation efforts begin at salk institute of biological studies
View of the central plaza at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, looking west towards the Pacific Ocean / © Salk Institute for Biological Studies

“The Salk Institute is an architectural icon, and the Getty was privileged to be invited by the Salk to work with them on the building’s long term preservation. Our access to the site, its archives, and the Institute’s staff, some of whom have worked there since the early years, has been extraordinary,” says Tim Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute. “The methodology developed by the GCI will serve as a roadmap for future conservation projects at the Salk Institute, as well as a model for other Louis Kahn buildings and buildings with similar conservation issues.”

Kahn was commissioned by Dr. Jonas Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine, to design the campus for his new scientific research institute on a coastal bluff in La Jolla, just north of San Diego. Kahn worked closely with Salk on the design of the building, which houses laboratories and other research facilities.

The 203 teak window walls are significant elements of the overall site, expressing a human element and scale within the monumental structure. Although prefabricated, each window has a hand-crafted quality due to the detailing of the teak wood by carpenters and customization to fit many sized openings. Each offers a different combination of sliding windows, louvers, and shutters, allowing staff to control light and air in their workspaces. The window walls are also significant in Kahn’s larger body of work, as they expand upon his office’s language of custom exterior woodwork, also used in several residential projects and the library at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

“The GCI sought to address issues on a long-term basis while preserving cultural significance and addressing the needs of those managing the site,” says Sara Lardinois, project specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute. “Our aim was to help the Salk Institute incorporate a conservation approach into its overall site management at a critical point in the building’s history—the 50-year mark often coincides with the need for a first major repair in modern buildings.”

Research found that the window walls suffered from surface erosion, the growth of a fungal biofilm (likely spread by nearby eucalyptus trees) that gave the wood a black appearance that varied significantly by exposure, changes to teak color due to previously applied sealers and finishes, insect infestation, and moisture infiltration due to the omission of flashings and weather stripping and the failure of sealants.

In order to get to the bottom of these issues, the GCI and its consultants engaged in historical research, including visits to the Khan archives and collecting oral histories, in order to better understand the significance of the window walls and Kahn’s original vision for the site. It explored the extent of damage to the window walls and performed physical and laboratory analysis to identify materials used and various causes of damage and deterioration. The GCI also convened a meeting of Salk representatives, other Kahn building owners with similar wood conservation issues, and preservation professionals. Possible treatments for the wood and wood replacement options were also researched, as well as design modifications to improve the overall performance of the assemblies. Finally, the GCI, along with the architectural and engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE), which served as the historic preservation consultant to the Salk Institute, developed a series of on-site trial mock-ups to evaluate different repair approaches and treatments to identify the most appropriate ways to move forward.

Drawing upon the results of the project team’s earlier research and the trial mock-ups, WJE has developed comprehensive construction documents to implement the repair and conservation of the window walls, with interventions ranging from minor (cleaning and repair), to moderate (cleaning, repair, and some replacement of materials), to major (removal of the entire window assembly where severely deteriorated and replacement using like-for-like materials). At this time, WJE is currently implementing the repair work, which is expected to be completed in 2017. WJE, with consultants Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins Architects (I+J), is also developing a comprehensive conservation management plan for long-term care of the institute’s buildings and site, funded by a grant from the Getty Foundation’s Keeping It Modern initiative.

“As stewards of this designated historic architectural landmark which attracts visitors from around the world, we needed a long-term conservation plan to preserve the integrity of the Institute for years to come,” says Tim Ball, Salk’s senior director of facility services. “The thorough insights and expertise provided by the GCI are invaluable for helping us move forward in repairing and maintaining these remarkable buildings.”

The GCI’s announcement comes after the recent completion of conservation work at Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut, for which WJE and I+J also served as preservation consultants and developed a conservation management plan.

A lecture about the conservation research effort and construction work of the teak wood window program at the Salk Institute is scheduled for October 5 at the Getty Center. Additionally, an exhibition of Louis Kahn’s life and career, Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture will open November 5 at the San Diego Museum of Art, with an accompanying symposium the same day.

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