Architecture: Salk Institute

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego has a very interesting history. One of the men that conceived of the institute is Joseph Salk, the developer of the polio vaccine! The other is architect Louis Kahn, notable for the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban (National Parliament Building) in Bangladesh, considered his magnum opus. The architecture is quite unique as Kahn was really influenced by the back-to-back design of early Greek and Romans buildings.

The Salk Institute was established in the 1960s by Jonas Salk, M.D., the developer of the polio vaccine. His goal was to establish an institute that would explore questions about the basic principles of life. He wanted to make it possible for biologists and others to work together in a collaborative environment that would encourage them to consider the wider implications of their discoveries for the future of humanity.

Jonas Salk had a distinct vision for the Salk Institute as he worked with scientists and architects to create a new paradigm for research and collaboration. Pictured above the early 1960s, Salk worked closely on many of the construction details of the Institute.

In December 1959, Salk and architect Louis Kahn began a unique partnership to design such a facility. 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, was able to respond to this challenge.

For San Diego Charles Dail, a polio survivor, bringing the Salk Institute to San Diego was a personal quest. Dail showed Salk 27 acres on a mesa in La Jolla, just west of the proposed site for the new University of California campus then planned for San Diego. In June 1960, in a special referendum, the citizens of San Diego voted overwhelmingly to give the land for Salk’s dream. With initial financial support from the National Foundation/March of Dimes, Salk and Kahn able to proceed.
Groundbreaking took place in 1962, and soon thereafter the Salk Institute for Biological Studies became a reality. A few key researchers were invited to work in temporary buildings which were used while construction was . When the first laboratory was opened in 1963, there were five senior scientists and their research teams. This distinguished group of fellows formed members of Salk’s first faculty group and in addition to Jonas Salk included Jacob Bronowski, Melvin Cohn, Renato Dulbecco, Edwin Lennox, and Leslie Orgel. The first Nonresident Fellows selected were Leo Szilard, Francis Crick, Salvador Luria, Jacques Monod, and Warren Weaver.

During the next few years, as the Salk expanded, resident fellows (now generally regarded as professors) and nonresident fellows (appointed scientists from other institutions) together advised Salk about future scientific directions. 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.

Today the major areas of study at Salk molecular biology and genetics, neurosciences, and plant biology. Salk research provides new understanding and potential new therapies and treatments for a range of diseases—from cancer, AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease, to cardiovascular disorders, anomalies of the brain and birth defects. Discoveries by plant biologists at the Salk pave the way to improving the quality and quantity of the world’s food supply and to addressing pressing environmental problems, including global warming.

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.

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