Louis Kahn

The Salk Institution through an empirical perspective

Louis Kahn, originally born Itze-Leib Schmuilowsky, was a world renown architect. Born 1901 Kahn lived for 73 years, until 1974 and during this time produced mesmerising pieces of architecture. His great works include the Exeter Library, The Salk Institute, The Kimbell Art Museum and the Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban. Judging by the amount of projects he completed, it is clear that it is quality and not quantity with Kahn. His buildings create an experience. Each building has its own characteristics and therefore creates its own atmosphere directly affecting the way humans interact with the architecture. When designing the genius loci and spirituality of place was one of the key elements for Kahn. It was not until he was fifty years old and went travelling in Rome that he discovered who he was and how he wanted to design. He found that the most important thing was the timelessness you can achieve by manipulating the senses and creating a moving piece of architecture.

Empiricism is the view that all knowledge comes from experience. John Locke spoke of ideas saying “All our ideas come from experience”[1] and by ideas he means things that people relate to, for example if you describe an object people can picture a similar object but everyone will have a different idea of the same thing making it an idea. The work of Locke was followed by Immanuel Kant and he said “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason,”[2] this is Kant explaining that without experience people would not be able to understand the world, they need to touch, taste, see, hear and smell it to really be able to start to understand it. So therefore it could be argued that Louis Kahn had a similar view when approaching architecture. For what makes great architecture? Is it that it is good now? “Architecture has to have an element of time, how can you judge a work, today… and what will happen to it in twenty to fifty years later? That is the measure of architecture.”[3] From this analysis it is clear that Kahn’s work can fully justify this as after he has died people still learn and visit his masterpieces.

Materiality was a key concern of Louis Kahn. Without experiencing and learning about a material he felt it was impossible to design. He thought that the materiality of an object should be one of the first things people think about. He said to his students “You say to brick, “what do you want brick?” And brick says to you, “I like an arch.” And you say to brick, “Look, I want one too, but arches are expensive and I can use a concrete lintel. “And then you say: “What do you want brick?” And the brick says “I like an arch”.[1] This quotation shows Kahn teaching what he had learnt by personifying the brick. By disrespecting the materials you are using, you are never capable of producing the unmeasurable. You will only produce good pieces of architecture but never fully understand why you cannot grasp the amazing. This can be related back to the empiricist view as Locke once said “No man's knowledge here can go beyond his experience,”[2] complementing just what Kahn was trying to explain in his lesson to his students by explaining that without experience and using your senses, you cannot gain knowledge or understand how to use that particular material.

Arguably Louis Kahn’s best piece of architecture is the Salk Institute in San Diego. When approached by Jonas Salk, discoverer of the polio vaccine, Kahn created an institution that would use two mirrored buildings parted by a spectacular courtyard. Luis Barragan spoke of the institute saying the courtyard was “a facade to the sky,”[1] and poetically this makes sense. The travertine marble floor acts not only as a finish but as a gateway to the sky as each step in this spiritual place will show a reflection of the sky on the surface of the marble. Louis Kahn spoke about this masterpiece saying it was simply, “the thoughtful making of space,”[2] showing that the finish was all intentional and that the overwhelming sensation of the place was all planned.

Again from Locke’s theory of knowledge it is shown that experience is how we as humans gain knowledge and that only after experiencing the Salk Institute can we fully understand the planning and detail that would have needed to be used in order to create something so special. Kahn links the ideas of Journey’s by creating a site plan. Through this journey and approach to the Salk Institution you gain longing to see what Kahn the artist has created. You must travel slightly uphill but once the open plaza forecourt is reached the captivating view is more than enough to entice you in further. The open plan of the laboratories allows people to travel through them seamlessly creating an open and equal working environment. The offices are situated to the west allowing them to have a beautiful and tranquil working environment as they overlook the horizon line. Once you walk from one end of the plaza to the next you are met by two equal staircases ending in the same place. The journey you have taken is equal to that of the water in the stream that runs through the middle. As the journey continues a person will undertake is different to the next they all meet at the pool that gathers at the end waiting to flow into the fountain on the next level. Kahn creates a connection with the two levels by wrapping the staircases around this fountain that flows in the centre. From a functional perspective the building works magnificently with the services situated towards the centre of the building creating a façade to the building. The lack of grass and trees on site shows that Kahn thought about what this particular site and building entangles and felt that by reducing green it would create a different kind of atmosphere to visitors on site. There is green on the opposite side to the ocean however even though it is reduced the presence of nature is always apparent.

The singular strip of narrow water is a connection to the great view that creates a perspective, separating the two sides of the Salk Institution. It is a singular run of water that automatically makes the spectator look up to the horizon. Cleverly this creates a strong bond with nature as the building is a manmade structure which is heavy and bold. This link to nature was shown in a lot of Kahn’s work and he once said “Architecture is what nature cannot make. Architecture is something unnatural but something not made up.”[1] From this we can learn more about Kahn’s appreciation to nature. The weighty laboratories would be lost if it was not for this break in the buildings. The water not only acts as a physical barrier but also a metaphorical one as it is acting as a mirror line. The symmetry between the two buildings is clearly apparent and the perfect illusion Kahn creates helps to make the focal point that of the ocean. Kahn has particularly paid careful attention to the orientation of the building and the site. The stream not only looks longingly into the horizon but it also creates the most beautiful of sights as the sun sets on the end of the stream. Elegance and effortlessness is shown in the work but in order to achieve such brilliance the work and evolvement with the project is all present.

2 3

Particular materials were required in this design as he was asked by Salk to design laboratory spaces that would not need to be regularly maintained, it must be strong and durable. The materials used by Kahn are concrete, steel, glass and teak. Kahn’s attention to detail does not only exist in the overall building but even to the detailed finishing of a material. The concrete, created using roman techniques, is set in a way that it exposes the cracks and imperfections. This showed Kahn expressing his style to every intricate detail. Some have said it was almost a replica of himself with his imperfect appearance, yet it is extraordinary how through these imperfections it creates something which is the antithesis of this, seeming perfect.

“Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? .... To this I answer in one word, from experience”[1] this empirical quote from John Locke is explaining through this example of a blank page of how we come to knowledge. It is again reinforcing the idea of knowledge through experience. This raises the question of how Kahn came to possess such talent in his works. The major influence was the trip to Rome and understanding timelessness. From this trip it has allowed him to create a piece of architecture that is timeless. Kahn aged three burnt and severally scared his face as a child. As he was getting older and going to school he was bullied and this lead to him living a fairly solitary life and was often found pondering. He did not open his first architecture firm until he was fifty years old and finally find himself as an architect until he was sixty. Living in the office for many of his days he was physically married to his job. Maybe this is the reason for his great works? The Salk Institute has become iconic and the experience people gain from visiting this place is extraordinary.


The key point to this building was the use of light. In all of Kahn’s work light was a major factor. In the Kimbell Art Museum he created a gracious piece of architecture by allowing light to reflect of the surface of the materials he was using to light the art works. Similarly in the Salk Institution he allowed light to reflect into the sunken laboratories. Due to the height restriction of the area Kahn was not able to build more than four stories high. This meant that two stories had to be built underground. The top three floors were for utilities and offices and the bottom three consisted of laboratories. He used light wells spanning 13m in length and 8m in width and was able to allow ample lighting into these sunken laboratories. The rooms above ground had a series of large window panes and this allowed the right amount of light in. Louis Kahn once said “The sun never knew how great it was until it hit a wall”[1] and by this he was not only justifying his architecture but was saying that without it nature would not be as great as it is. It is a poet sentence that shows even he gave thought to the words he carefully selected when describing his buildings.

I have shown that there is a clear similarity between the work of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institution and empiricism. Through the eyes of John Locke and George Berkeley I have analysed one of the great 20th Century buildings and drawn similar conclusions. Empiricism states knowledge is gained through experience and that is primarily gained through the senses, we are born into the world as a blank canvas ready to learn and every person’s experience is different to the next. This would mean that each person who visits the Salk Institute would experience the building in a different way and on a whole this is the case with every piece of architecture. Each building is not going to amaze everyone but it must be said that overall the work of Louis Kahn is very impressive and through his troublesome life the struggle through imperfection has resulted in an architectural masterpiece, some might say acting as perfection.


[1] Locke, J. (1959). An essay concerning human understanding. Publisher New York, Dover Publications

[2] Kant, I. (1781). The critique of pure reason. Publisher Palgrave Macmillan; New edition edition (4 July 2003)

[3] My Architect, A Son’s Journey. (2003) Directed by Nathaniel Kahn

[4] Louis Kahn Quotes. (2001). Retrieved 18th May 2014, From Brainy Quotes.

[5] John Locke Quotes. (2001). Retrieved 17th May 2014, From Brainy Quotes.

[6] Perez, Adelyn. "AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn" 28 May 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 20 May 2014. <>

[7] Perez, Adelyn. "AD Classics: Salk Institute / Louis Kahn" 28 May 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed 20 May 2014. <>

[8] Louis Kahn Quotes. (2001). Retrieved 18th May 2014, From Brainy Quotes.

[9] Locke, J. (1959). An essay concerning human understanding. Publisher New York, Dover Publications

[10] Louis Kahn Quotes. (2001). Retrieved 18th May 2014, From Brainy Quotes.


Cover image:

Image 1:

Image 2:

Image 3:

Image 4:

Image 5:

Image 6: