Awarded with the AIA Gold medal, 1971, and RIBA Gold medal, 1972, architect Louis Khan is known as one of the pioneering architects of the 20th century. With his distinguished architectural style, the architect was known for adding a statement to the structures through bold design elements, ideologies, and theories. With concrete as the primary material for most of his architectural masterpieces, the modernist architect gave a stand-out description to it, along with adding a decent elegant flair as well. 

Originally named Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky, born within the Russian rule, in present-day Estonia, a slight glimpse of the Soviet essence architecture, the grandness, and monumentality, is seen in the works of the American immigrant. The architectural character of his works mainly focused on simple straight-line planning, clean definitive facades, and a highly concentrated material palette. 

As described by his contemporaries, Louis Kahn was more of an artist than an architect, which was seen through his works, stating his command over his works. This skill of his was one of the factors in his professional practice, which fetched him a couple of projects. His structures stood as a major landmark in any given varied contexts, starting to form educational ones to religious ones. Even though, through his limited works, Kahn managed to deliver a masterpiece with each of them. 

Louis Kahn’s basic design philosophy revolved around the fundamental ideas of light, shadow, and massing. These fundamentals took a new level by aiming to achieve spirituality for the space. The quality of silence was majorly noted in one of his most celebrated structures, the Salk institute for biological studies. Kahn himself had admired and cherished the project to great extent. As well as, one of the successful projects his office completed in terms of business as well. The institute situated in San Diego, the city of California, is a research institute for studies in biology.


Salk Institute by Louis Kahn The pozzolanic concrete structure - Sheet1
Salk Institute_©

The design narrates the discipline, through its perfect symmetrical massing, majorly hardscaped foregrounds, and controlled landscape. The immediate setting played an important role within the orientation of the campus, as one of the design aims was to appreciate the natural context. The planning and form of development involved the most geometric and simplistic patterns. The series of open spaces was given the center stage with linear edge massing, allowing it to complement the natural water body. 

In a way, rigidity was emphasized considering the typology of the project, characterised as institutional. The play of light and shadows gave rise to an untamed silence and otherworldliness to the space. It formed an environment for the user to define his behaviour. With the central entrance open space to the campus, two wings are designated on either side of it. Each with a set of offices placed throughout the length of the building. The division amid two consecutive offices was established by adding a staircase block in between. Taking lessons from the previous project of Richards Medical Research Laboratories, Philadelphia, the architect designed clear spaces for laboratories with maximum space utilisation by having column less structure for it. Each of the floors consisted of the typically placed office series and laboratory blocks. Each of the office blocks framed an unobstructed sea view over the infinite edge created over the end of the creek. 

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Salk Institute_©

In order to cut off the dominance of the structure created by its material palette and heavy mass, part of the structures was submerged underground allowing maintaining the human scale. Seen from the northern façade, a blend of concrete frame and wooden glass openings is evident. Whereas for the southern façade, a raw image of free-standing concrete blocks is developed. A similar pattern of elevations is seen for either side of the campus, dead walls with the sky to its backdrop and adjoining minimal planter and green area marking a distance to appreciate it from a specified point. The architect didn’t believe in suppressing the process of architecture, but in a theory to cherish each and every part of the process. Hence, in order to reveal the process for the Salk Institute, the material and its detailing were left untouched, exposing the scars on the concrete made during it being made, adding to the structure’s timeless beauty. Adding to the timelessness was the play of shadows cast by the full-scale openings cutting through and through the huge concrete walls, creating passages and hollow spaces.

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Salk Institute_©Wikimapia
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Salk Institute_©Thomas and

With all of the detailing and the bold nature of it, the Salk institute always marked its presence critiqued between two distinct schools of thought; the silent spirituality versus the rigid and untamed. To date marking its presence as one of the most acclaimed and celebrated masterpieces by architect Louis Kahn.

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Salk Institute_©



Sanjana is a young architect with keen interest in place making and urban theories. It's the stories of the spaces and it's expressions, which got her exploring the field of journalism.

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