Sunday, July 12, 2009

Architecture of Dreams & the Salk Institute

Hope lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality—Jonas Salk

Prize-winning biologist Jonas Salk was certain that the inspiration that led to his development of the polio vaccine in the 1950s came from the contemplative setting of Assisi, Italy. Salk’s progress had been slow in his basement laboratory in Pittsburg, so he decided to travel to Assisi, Italy, to clear his head. Amid his ambles within the cloistered courtyards and elegant columns of a 13th Century monastery, Salk was struck with fresh insights, including the one that led to his successful polio vaccine.

Convinced that architectural environments influenced the mind, Salk later teamed up with accomplished artist and architect Louis Kahn to build the spacious Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, in 1965. It remains one of the world’s boldest structures and is now designated a historical site. The research institute fulfills Salk’s vision of a facility where open, unobstructed laboratory interiors set in a dramatic location inspire creativity among its researchers. Indeed, this “jewel of biomedical research” has attracted and spawned the creativity of close to a dozen Nobel Prize winners and promoted the unbridled spirit of its scientists and students whose almost unrivaled scientific talent has regularly placed the Salk Institute in the world’s top three biomedical research organizations in publications and faculty accomplishments.

The institute overlooks the coastal bluffs of La Jolla, California, 350 feet above the Pacific Ocean on a 27-acre site donated by the City of San Diego. Salk entrusted Kahn with specific design requests to fulfill: first that the structure be adaptable to the ever-changing needs of science; that the facility weather the effects of time with minimal maintenance cost; and that the laboratory environments meet the researcher’s functional, humanistic and aesthetic needs. Salk challenged Kahn to: “Create a facility worthy of a visit by Pablo Picasso.”

Kahn’s creation is an elegant and powerful two mirror-image of rectangular buildings that flank a sweeping courtyard made entirely of imported travertine marble. Flowing through its centre is the “river of life”, which cascades down several step pools toward the sea. The buildings and courtyard consist of open elegance and simple lines, inspiring open-mindedness, imaginative thought and creativity.

When I had the opportunity to take a tour of the Salk Institute while in San Diego for the NEA Expo, I seized it.

I registered in advance online for a scheduled architecture tour and prepared mentally for a lifetime experience. I was then informed that the place was closed that day (for Independence Day) and the tour was booked up the current day but that the campus was still open and I could wander around until 5pm. Disappointed but determined to see the campus, I arranged for my friend Margaret to pick me up early from the conference so we could squeeze in an hour before the campus closed.

When we arrived, I had to stop and soak up the powerful energy that seemed to emanate from the place. I’d seen pictures of the institute; I’d researched and written about it and knew a great deal about Salk’s vision. I was still enthralled when I saw and felt it for the first time. My body sang with a kinetic energy as I wandered, dreamlike, taking pictures and writing notes about the grounds and buildings. I’d entered a dream.

As we left the courtyard—my mind still singing with inspiration—I made a dashing leap over the concrete barrier and went—splat— OOPS! I…well…missed—like the place was reluctant to let me go. I bruised my leg but more my ego as strangers rushed forward with urgent cries, “Are you all right, ma’m?” I sprang up and retorted, “I'm fine!” Though, according to Margaret, I more rolled than sprang. But what does she know? She’s almost as old as I am and needs her eyes checked.

As we prepared to leave, we stopped by the reception area—I was looking for a bookstore or a place that had some material on the place—where I lamented to the receptionist about missing the tour and how I felt about the place. Well, guess what? The administrator, who was standing there, decided to give us a personal tour. She hadn’t even seen my little “oof” outside either... or had she? Anyway, I felt blessed by the opportunity because I know that Betsy, my personal tour guide, told me and showed me things I wouldn’t have seen in the regular tour.

The tour began with a stroll past the lime tree grove into the inner courtyard. Part of the clean design is the lack of any signage, which serves to promote communication among workers and visitors. To find your way you need to ask someone; indeed, this is exactly what we had to do. Labs are also comingled, Betsy told us, to foster cooperation among the various disciplines. The lime grove combines living green with sturdy rock. “Stone and fruit is paradise,” said Salk according to Betsy. She also pointed out the chalk boards placed on the outside supports for those spontaneous moments of creativity and discussion.

Betsy explained how each building is six stories tall (three working laboratory levels and three interstitial levels housing the utilities.) By confining the electrical lines, piping and ventilation systems to these areas, Kahn kept the laboratories completely open and unobstructed and permit researchers to re-configure their laboratories as scientific needs change. In addition, the large glass panel walls of each open laboratory can be removed for easy re-configuring. Twenty-nine separate structures join together to form the Institute. Understanding the importance of light, Kahn flooded each building unit with daylight; airy work environments are assured through the use of large double-strength crystal glass panes for all outer walls of labs. Kahn included 25-foot deep and 40-foot long light wells to bring in daylight to the two underground levels.

Kahn chose concrete, teak, lead glass and A242 steel to build the facility. The waterproof qualities and warm, pinkish glow of “pozzolonic” concrete (used in Roman times) was left in its raw state (not grinded or filled or painted). Similarly, no stain was applied to the teak, which was left to weather to a natural gray over time, and the steel was left untreated to create a dense adherent oxide that prevents further corrosion.

Behavioral scientists are continually discovering ways to design spaces that promote creativity, keep students focused and alert, and lead to social intimacy. In an earlier post of mine (about the circular campus of UVic), I explored the idea of the “circle” in architectural design and how it may positively affect people’s social interaction and intellectual performance. A Harvard Medical School study showed that people gravitated to rounded edges and that the amygdala (the part of our brain that registers fear) was more active when people looked at sharp-edged objects. In a later post I discussed findings that determined the role of ceiling height on whether a person focused more on concepts or on details. Shapes, textures, tone, height and color all play a role in determining how mind, heart and spirit function in the creative process. For instance, red tones and low ceilings promote detailed thinking and socialization while blue tones and high ceilings promote creative, imaginative and more relaxed thought. In the post previous to this one I showcased the San Diego Conference Centre, designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson (who had also designed the stately Anthropology Museum at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, Burnaby) whose innovative and unique designs have been featured in several motion pictures and TV shows, including Battlestar Galactica.

Architecture is both art and science that expresses who and what we are and where we are going. The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) in San Diego is currently the only organization in the world that is devoted to bridging neuroscience with architecture. It is an exciting example of where the marriage of art and science can determine our future.

The Salk Institute inspired me to soar with immeasurable creative joy and energetic muse. I could probably write a novel there in three weeks. Perhaps I’ll return and do just that (just don’t tell my publisher or she’ll hold me to it!)

Biology at the Salk Institute:
The Salk Institute is a premier independent, non-profit, scientific research facility that consistently ranks among the leading research institutions in the world in objective measures of the contributions of faculty and the impact of their findings. The institute continues to rank among the top institutions in the US in terms of research output and quality in the life sciences. In 2004, the Times Higher Education Supplement ranked Salk as the world's top biomedicine research institute in 2004, and in 2009 it was ranked number one globally by ScienceWatch in the neuroscience and behavior areas. The Salk Institute conducts its biological research under the guidance of 57 faculty investigators, employing a scientific staff of more than 850, including visiting scientists, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students.

Major areas of study focus within three areas: Molecular Biology and Genetics; Neurosciences; and Plant Biology. Knowledge acquired in Salk laboratories provides new understanding and potential new therapies and treatments for a range of diseases-from cancer to AIDS, from Alzheimer's disease to cardiovascular disorders, from anomalies of the brain to birth defects. Studies in plant biology at the Salk may one day help improve the quality and quantity of the world's food supply.

The Institute has trained more than 2,000 scientists, many of whom have gone on to positions of leadership in other prominent research centers worldwide. Five scientists trained at the Institute have won Nobel Prizes, and four current resident faculty members are Nobel Laureates.

Jonas Salk was a strong promoter of creative arts alongside scientific pursuit to create a more balanced creative environment. Salk’s second wife, Francoise Gilot, painter and author and the longtime companion of Pablo Picasso. Her works have been exhibited in the institute’s gallery, in addition to works by local artists. The institute also hosts various symposia and community outreach programs.

The Symphony at Salk, an annual fund raising show featuring the San Diego Symphony orchestra and, this year, Tony Award winning entertainer Bernadette Peters provides an evening of music in the Theodore Gildred Court. Proceeds from this concert under the stars directly benefit the groundbreaking biological research at the Institute and its community programs such as the Salk Mobile Science Lab and the High School Science Day. You can learn more about sponsorships and get tickets here.

More institute information can be obtained at: and the bioinformatics center is at See you there!

Biography of Jonas Salk:

Jonas Salk is one of the United States's best known microbiologists, chiefly celebrated for his discovery of the polio vaccine. His greatest contribution to immunology was the insight that a "killed virus" is capable of serving as an antigen, prompting the body's immune system to produce antibodies that will attack invading organisms. This realization enabled Salk to develop a polio vaccine composed of killed polio viruses, producing the necessary antibodies to help the body to ward off the disease without itself inducing polio.

The eldest son of Orthodox Jewish-Polish immigrants, Jonas Edward Salk was born in East Harlem, New York, on 28 October 1914. His father, Daniel B. Salk, was a garment worker, who designed lace collars and cuffs and enjoyed sketching in his spare time. He and his wife, Dora Press, encouraged their son's academic talents, sending him to Townsend Harris High School for the gifted. There, young Salk was both highly motivated and high achieving, graduating at the age of fifteen and proceeding to enroll in the legal faculty of the City College of New York. Jonas Salk first married Donna Lindsay with whom he had three children. Following a divorce in 1968 he remarried artist Francoise Gilot, a Sorbonne student and long time companion of Pablo Picasso. She survived him when he died of heart failure in 1995. Jonas Salk’s brother, Dr. Lee Salk, is a distinguished specialist in neuromuscular diseases.

Asked who owned the patent on his vaccine, Jonas Salk replied "The people, I suppose. Could you patent the sun?"

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Thanks for the tour, Nina. You're a good guide.

Nina Munteanu said...

You're welcome, Jean-Luc. This is one of my favorite places. I found it extremely peaceful. It generated an energy that was inexplicably calming yet stirring at the same time. Hard to explain. I'm just glad there are gifted people out there who recognize that buildings are more than structures but "a way of life".

The outside area was elegant with clean lines, yet the labs inside, which you could see unobstructed through the huge glass panes, bustled with the "clutter" of productivity. Stable chaos... LOL!

Nina Munteanu said...

...hmmmm "clutter" is the wrong word... clutter suggests an impediment. What I saw was the opposite: the labs were bustling with "a rich boil" of productivity. A quick-silver flow of intense thought -- during my walk, I glimpsed aspects of this through the revealing glass panes: two women bent over pipettes, dispensing aliquots; a scientist studying his data output; two researchers discussing their results near a courtyard chalkboard...

Ram Bansal said...

Well researched and informative. Thanks for sharing.

Nina Munteanu said...

You're so welcome, Ram... It was such an enjoyable and uplifting experience... I'd call it spiritual. When art and science interact positively to produce more than either can on its own, in a true symbiosis, my soul thrills.

Baby Brie said...

You did roll as seen not only by my weak, old eyes but by the sharp youthful eyes of a boy named Michael!

But enough debate about your kinesthetic prowess...

Since our inspirational visit to the Salk Institute, I have been doing some investigating of my own about the mind/body/environment link and "How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci"! Michael Gelb (not the Michael with the sharp youthful eyes) has written a book by that very title, "How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci"!
I thought you might like to know that one of the seven Da Vincian principles is...
Arte/Scienza - The development of the balance between science and art, logic and imagination. "Whole-brain" thinking.
Oh...and another Da Vincian principle is Corporalita - The cultivation of grace, ambidexterity, fitness, and poise.

Nina Munteanu said...

Hmmmm.......TMI ......kinesthetic prowess, eh?...(that's the problem with unreliable witnesses...) But it does look like I need to cultivate the Corporalita DaVinci principle...

S-V-H said...

A very nice and interesting post, Nina! I learned a lot... :)

I know, it's longtime since I have visited your blog - sorry for that! Traveling is very time consuming for me, but beautiful!

Thanks for your visits to my blog, very much appreciated.

Sue's Daily Photography

Nina Munteanu said...

Coolio! Nice to see you, Susanne and neat to hear of all your travels! I will be embarking on yet more travels of my own within a few weeks... continuing my tour of North America that will take me to Anticipation, SF World Convention in Montreal where I will be on panels, signings and doing readings, then off to St. Simons Island in Georgia to give my course on "The Hero's Journey" then I'm off to Halifax and Toronto to tour and visit friends and relatives.

Toulouse LeTrek said...

Cool post, Nina. I enjoyed it too. The Salk Institute is just one architectural highlight of San Diego and area. You also posted about the architecture of the Conference Centre in downtown San Diego. Here's my version of that trip:

Come visit me there and comment!
Your friend,

Toulouse :-3