Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute
The Salk Institute by Louis Kahn is an example of a modern building because of its simple geometric forms, cubistic structures with smooth surfaces, the use of mass produced materials with honesty of construction, use of indoor and outdoor relationships, and functionality. Kahn designed a building linking science to nature and creating space depending on natural light. Also, through symmetry, he created a grand courtyard which flows water to the sea and from which the buildings mirror each other from. This design creates beauty through nature’s transcendence over the building, with simple, clean surfaces, mimicking the tedious and immaculate research space inside.
The Salk Institute is composed of simple geometric forms made out of concrete. Corners are rigid, creating spaces perfectly mathematical and devoid of ornamentation and abstraction of shapes. Although the majority of the shapes are rectangular, there are perfect geometric circles specifically in the small waterfall fountain in which the circles are cut out of the concrete to allow for seating areas. These areas of seating have a view of the Pacific, allowing scientists who are cooped up in laboratories are able to release their souls from those confines and return to nature and the truths, knowledge, and inspiration found there. The geometric shapes create a space dependent on the space making abilities of geometric forms. They are not just plain, un-envisioned rooms, but spaces specifically shaped with geometry.
Kahn used concrete, creating surfaces, flat, unadorned, and smooth. This creates of sense of cleanliness and emphasizes the perfection of geometric shapes. Both these attributes mirrors and accentuates the perfection and articulate research happening behind its walls. The unadorned surface shows that extravagance and meaningless decoration is not important in science. The smooth surface also enables cleanliness to be a more reachable and important factor to the facility. It enables the building to be more about performance than aesthetic appeal. This performance goal determined concrete as the main material for another reason: its ability to be quickly mass produced. After the industrialization, industrialized materials for buildings became the new norm because they were quicker and easier to produce than expressionistic hand-made materials. They were also usually cheaper because of this. Kahn chose concrete because it was a symbol of man’s ability to create things efficiently through modern technology. This also mirrored the research facility because advancing technology and knowledge was a goal of new research.
The other materials Kahn chose were teak, glass, and steel. While glass and steel are mass produced materials, teak is a wood. Although this material may seem out of place, teak was used to highlight and remind the scientists of the role of the natural world. Because the scientists are confined to their labs the majority of their day, alienation from the natural world is probably all too prevalent. In order to thwart this, Kahn uses wood to bring a more natural feel to the very mathematical and mass produced concrete, steel and glass.
Kahn includes nature into the design also through the use of natural light. Windows of labs and individual working spaces face the Pacific Ocean, letting in natural light, reminding scientists of the importance of nature, and also reminding them that they are part of something much larger. This is because of the scale of the buildings in comparison to human scale. Because of this contrast in scale, the scientists are reminded that their work is important to the rest of the world. In addition, the natural light infuses the space of the laboratories. This refreshment of light encourages productivity by not detaining the spirits of the scientists.
This influx of natural light is made possible from the large fenestration. The broad panes of glass which create a wall allows for light to flow inside the architectural space. These walls of glass are a typical product of modernist architecture. The idea of healthy and natural living, along with industrialization, encouraged walls of glass. Kahn encourages this healthy and natural living in other ways too. He places benches in the courtyard area, overlooking the stream and the Pacific Ocean to again link the scientists to the realm of nature and the outdoors. Some of the rooms inside also have openings to allow for ventilation of new, fresh air and he also designed there to be balconies to encourage interaction with the natural world.
Another example of the Salk Institute’s seminal modernism is its focus of performance and functionality rather than historical and conventional building styles. The modern movement reevaluated the meaning of buildings, and believed that the built environment should not inhibit the usage of the building. Therefore, Kahn made the building structurally sound and with untreated concrete in order to prevent aging so maintenance isn’t necessary. He also designed the laboratories in convenient set ups to aid the scientists. This attention to performance makes the Salk not only a place of serenity, but also a place of efficiency.
Salk represents the characteristics of seminal modernism that strived to enrich the human experience of the building and it’s relation to nature. Kahn endeavored to create a building that promoted the work it was created for, while also allowing the inhabitants to enjoy the natural world. The Salk Institute reminds us that we are part of something much greater than ourselves.