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Shortly after inventing the polio vaccine, scientist Jonas Salk set his sights on another groundbreaking undertaking: creating an institute where science and art could meet and inform each other. In architect Louis Kahn, Salk found a man who not only shared this vision, but who was capable of designing the space to support it. The Salk Institute’s monumental modernist buildings and plaza, located on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, are the result of this collaboration.

In this episode, Jonathan Salk and Nathaniel Kahn, sons of Jonas Salk and Louis Kahn respectively, discuss their fathers’ relationship to each other and to the Salk Institute.

black and white contact sheet of four photographs of the Salk Institute and its grounds under construction

The Salk Institute being completed in the early 1960s. Credit: Salk Institute

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The Salk Institute
AUDIO: The Salk Institute Part 2 – Conservation for the Future


JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

NATHANIEL KAHN: At the end of Casablanca, you know, Louis and Rick are walking off and— Rick, of course, played by Humphrey Bogart, says to Claude Rains, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” [they laugh] And I think of that building as being the record of a beautiful friendship.

CUNO: The Salk Institute for Biological Studies grew out of a unique collaboration between two visionaries: a scientist, Jonas Salk, and an architect, Louis Kahn. In this episode, I speak with their sons, Jonathan Salk and Nathaniel Kahn, about their fathers’ shared vision for what became one of the masterworks of modern architecture.

Jonas Salk once said of his eponymous institute: “The Salk Institute is a curious place, not easily understood, and the reason for it is that this is a place in the process of creation. It is being created and is engaged in studies of creation. We cannot be certain what will happen here, but we can be certain it will contribute to the welfare and understanding of humankind.” Salk had high hopes for his institute.  And he found perhaps the one architect who could give them the dignified form he wanted.

In 1954, national testing of Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine began with one million children, ages six to nine. On April 12, 1955, the results were proclaimed to be safe and effective. In the two years before the vaccine was widely available, the average number of polio cases in the U.S. was more than 45,000. By 1962, that number had dropped to 910.  Salk was hailed as a miracle worker.

In 1960, the city of San Diego gave Salk 27 acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean on which to build a laboratory.  That same year he turned to the visionary architect, Louis Kahn, with whom Salk shared an aesthetic sensibility.  Kahn recalled Salk telling him that he wanted them to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.”

To learn about the relationship between the two men, I met with their sons, Jonathan Salk and Nathaniel Kahn in the Salk house, not far from the Institute.  Jonathan is an adult and child psychologist and Nathaniel Kahn is a renowned filmmaker.  His 2003 film, My Architect, told the story of his father’s unconventional life and was nominated for an Academy Award.

I’m sitting with Jonathan Salk and Nathaniel Kahn, sons, respectively, of Jonas Salk and Lou Kahn, the two visionary men behind the conception and execution of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies. We’re sitting in Jonas Salk’s house, now owned by Jonathan and his wife Elizabeth, situated high above the cliffs of La Jolla. Jonathan and Nathaniel, thank you for joining me on this podcast.

KAHN:  Thank you.

JONATHAN SALK:  Glad to be here.

CUNO:  Now, the Salk Institute is known equally for its scientific research and its architecture, and for the complementary vision of both client and architect. Theirs was, in every respect, a very special relationship. Kahn later said of it, “When you ask who has been my favorite client, one name comes sharply to mind, and that’s Jonas Salk. Dr. Salk listened closely to my speculations and was serious about how I approached the building. He listened more carefully to me than I do myself.”

Jonathan and Nathaniel, give us a sense of your fathers and of their relationship.

KAHN:  Oh, that’s such an easy one, Jim.

SALK:  Yeah.

CUNO: Take your time. Take your time. [laughter]

KAHN:  I’ll let you go first.

SALK: Fine. You know, my sense of my father spans a long period of time. But I think the clearest is sort of the combination of in retrospect and the experience of him. But he was really a warm human being. And when I think back, that’s the quality that comes through in his relationship to human beings. And he also just— He had this ability to think on a grand scale and make it come to pass in reality.

CUNO:  Was he already thinking about the Salk Institute when you were born?

SALK:  No.

CUNO:  Or you remember him before the Salk Institute?

SALK:  Yeah, I do remember. The vaccine came out when I was five. And then it was in the years following the vaccine that he kind of began to envisage having an institute of some different kind and some meeting of the minds. So that was when I was nine, ten, eleven.

CUNO:  Uh-huh.

KAHN:  You were five. Were you vaccinated?

SALK:  I was vaccinated. I think I got my first vaccination at the age of three.

KAHN:  Unbelievable.

CUNO:  He was taking chances with you.

SALK:  You know, it’s so interesting. People often say, you know, “Weren’t you scared?” Well, first of all, I was three. But my father was so absolutely sure that it wasn’t going to have any adverse effects that he really just wanted us immunized as early as possible. So there wasn’t any sense of experimentation or anything like that. This was just, you know, Mother and Dad taking care of us. In a very painful way. [laughter]

CUNO:  That’s for sure. Now, they meet in 1959, Nathaniel.

KAHN:  Yes.

CUNO:  So when you were born?

KAHN:  I was born in ’62. So I was not alive when they met.

CUNO:  Yeah. What about the stories at home about the project?

KAHN:  Well, I certainly remember my father talking about Dr. Salk. And I did meet him when my father— I mean, it’s interesting, you talking about your father and having long memories with him. My memories were shorter, because my father died when I was eleven.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  However, because I’ve made the film and because I’ve sort of had the great joy of meeting all of you, I feel like I keep finding things out about my father. And through his buildings, the things he left behind. But certainly, the Salk Institute was an absolute turning point in my father’s career. There’s no question that— You know, he built the Richards Medical Towers, which were kind of—

CUNO:  [over Kahn] — at Penn.

KAHN:  At Penn.

CUNO:  [over Kahn] The University of Pennsylvania [inaudible].

KAHN:  [over Cuno] Yeah, at the University of Pannsylvania. Which kinda put him on the map, in a way. He had done the Yale Art Gallery in the early fifties, and the Trenton Bath House, a very important building, in the mid-fifties. And he was also working on the— a church in Rochester, in the late fifties. But the Salk Institute was really in many ways, the great breakthrough in his professional career, in his life. The Richards building, and then— and then Salk.

But the interesting thing was that I think he met your father in Pittsburgh, originally. And he’d given a lecture, and your father came up to him and said, you know, “I’m looking for an architect. How should I select an architect?” What a wonderful question. Of course, my father was— I’m sure, immediately wanted to say, well, just choose me. But it was serious question.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  And they began to have these wonderful philosophical conversations. And then Jonas came to Philadelphia and saw the Richards Medical Towers and he was very impressed by them. I know he was impressed by them. But I think in a way, he sort of sensed, well, there’s a lot of potential here.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  And this is gonna be very different when we go to California. And the site was as yet, I think, unsecured. The land was kind of put aside, but they had to convince the city that this would be a great thing for La Jolla. So it was a wonderful challenge. And when you mentioned your father vaccinating you, I think both our fathers were risk takers.

CUNO:  Now here, I think, is the chronology, at least as I have it.

KAHN:  Yeah.

CUNO:  In 1952, Salk developed the vaccine thought to prevent polio. Three years later, ’55, it was pronounced safe and effective. Two years later, ’57, Salk began his quest to build a scientific laboratory. And in ’59, he meets Lou Kahn, and he takes him around the Richards laboratories, and they talk about the selection process of an architect and what he’s looking for. And they begin to talk about the prospect of doing something, perhaps doing it together.

MAN:  Yes.

CUNO:  In 1960, Salk was given twenty-seven acres overlooking the Pacific Ocean, by the City of San Diego, and was promised financial support from the National Foundation for the Prevention of Paralysis, or the March of Dimes. So but you’re saying they still to convince the City of San Diego that it was a worthy effort.

KAHN:  I think so. Yeah, as I understand it, they needed to present a plan. That the city would say— They’d already given the land to your father, but they wanted to know how this was going to work. And so the development of that plan was really essential.

CUNO:  And that same year, 1960, both Jonas Salk and Lou Kahn visited La Jolla together for the first time. And the Salk Institute was completed only five years later. I mean, it was a rapid development of this…

KAHN:  Yeah, when you think about it, it is pretty quick. But there were certainly a lotta changes along the way. I mean, the first building that were designed for the Salk were Towers, like the Richards Medical Towers at Penn.

CUNO:  So six, ten stories tall?

KAHN:  Yeah. They were towers on the site. And the—

SALK:  There were four of them, right?

KAHN:  And there were four of them. [Salk: Yeah] That’s right. And it was a wonderful sort of a plan. But from the very start, it always had several parts to it. There were laboratories. And they also imagined a meeting place, which was separate, and also residences for visiting faculty. And I think the important thing really to realize is that from the very start, this was such a visionary idea…

SALK:  Exactly.

KAHN:  …of your father’s…

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  …that this would be a place that people could really come to and bring their whole lives to. Not just a place to work. Or to think or to develop science, but a place for culture, a place to develop the mind.

SALK:  Yes.

KAHN:  And to really explore the ideas of consciousness. I mean, this is 1960. People were not thinking that way.

SALK:  Right, right.

KAHN:  So to be able to convince the city that this was going to be a great idea, they really needed to show a good plan, too.

SALK:  Yeah.

CUNO:  Yeah. Nathaniel, if you could talk a little bit about your father’s career, in this respect. That is, I gave a chronology of the project itself. It was built very rapidly, it seemed. But at the same time, he had projects that included the library at Exeter Academy, the Kimbell Museum, the Yale Center for British Art, and in South Asia, the Indian Institute of Management, in Ahmedabad, and the capitol of Bangladesh.

So it was a moment in which he was really preoccupied with many different projects, but he kept coming back to this project.

KAHN:  Well, yes. I mean, some of those projects were later, but the blossoming of my father’s career—and you look at it—it’s rather late in life. He built the Yale Art Gallery in 1953. He was fifty-two years old. For the next eight years or so, he had several projects. The Richards Medical Towers come out in 1957 and ’58, ’59. And then in 1960, the Salk project.

But then suddenly he gets these projects in Southeast Asia that you talk absolute out, the capitol of Bangladesh, which was then, of course—It was not Bangladesh, it was East Pakistan. He also had a project at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, to design a whole campus. Two enormous projects. And then he had a wonderful church in Rochester, all going at the same time. And then the other projects you mentioned, the Kimbell Art Museum and the Exeter Library, in Exeter New Hampshire, were later.

CUNO:  Right.

KAHN:  So those were not on the boards at the same time. But at the moment he got the Salk, very soon after that, also these projects in India and Pakistan came to life. So he was a busy, busy man. But the Salk Institute consumed him.

CUNO:  Yeah.

SALK:  Well, it was such a meeting of the minds and spirits…

KAHN:  It was.

SALK:  …of two people. I mean, my father, you know, sort of thought on a metaphysical level, and a grand vision about humanity, about evolution, about nature, you know, and about world health and development and the evolution of human beings.

CUNO:  Tell us how the Salk vaccine changed his life and his working practice.

SALK:  Well, it was an astounding and a major change in his life. It’s a complex story. But he was, up until then, you know, assistant professor working in a laboratory, developing what became the vaccine. But he always had a quality. He wasn’t just a lab rat. He always had a quality of thinking about— of understanding the effect of this vaccine.

And he had a sense of what the meaning was, beyond just the pure science of it. That set him apart from other scientists, was that he had that vision. When the vaccine was successful, it was really a life changer. I mean, we went to Ann Arbor. We were gonna come back the next day to announce the results that it was safe, effective, and potent. And it was just— You know, it was on the front page of every newspaper in the country, all around the world.

SALK:  You know, there was a crush of attention and such a crush of press, we ended up spending another week there before we came back to Pittsburgh.

KAHN:  Well, he became world famous overnight.

SALK:  It’s really interesting.

KAHN:  I mean—

SALK:  The story is that he became world famous overnight. And in fact, he did. But there’s a picture of him on the cover of Time magazine that I always assumed was after the announcement of the vaccine. After he died, somebody sent me a copy, and it was 1954. So my dad was on the cover of Time magazine a year before the vaccine was announced and effective. So there was this— You know, and it’s one of the things that brought him under criticism from other scientists, is that he sorta stepped out of the laboratory and talked and directly addressed the public.  But it was part of the genius of the March of Dimes to use him in that way.

CUNO:  Yeah. So how did the connection to San Diego come about?

SALK:  That’s a great story. Just to fill in, Jim. So in the years after the vaccine, he never made it back into the laboratory. He was only forty years old. And someone said, you know, “Jonas, you’re in a position to do that which makes your heart leap.” And so I think that really gave him permission to dream on a big scale.

There was an evolution of the concept of the institute. But he was primarily focused on having a different kind of institution, where people from arts and sciences get together, where there weren’t the normal burdens of academia, where there wasn’t the rigidity. So there was a flexibility, not only to the architectural design of the institute, there was a flexibility build into the administrative design of the institute.

CUNO:  And he couldn’t have had that flexibility at University of Pittsburgh, University of Michigan?

SALK:  [over Cuno] Right. He initially thought that he would do it at University of Pittsburgh. There was initial response, but he really ran into a rigid academic kind of system and couldn’t do it. So then he began looking elsewhere. And actually, the plan was pretty much to do it in Palo Alto, associated with Stanford University. Someone told him about this potential of this land in La Jolla, and he came out to see it, literally to say no. He just thought, okay, I’ll see it and I’ll say no.

CUNO:  Was he invited out by the university?

SALK:  He was invited out by someone associated with the city. So the UCSD was just starting at the same time. It wasn’t very influential; it wasn’t very big. And he came out and he stood on that site and he just went, “This is it.”

CUNO:  Right, yeah.

SALK:  It’s another quality that my father had is he just had a tremendous sense of intuition that he trusted, and could combine it with reason, and able to get things done.

CUNO:  Yeah.

KAHN:  And such a marvelous— You think about the site and how the site spoke to your father. And certainly, how the site spoke to my father.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  In a sense—and I hadn’t sort of put this together before, but—my father was an urban archite— He’s Philadelphia. You know, he built urban building. But his great love, really, if you kind of look it dead in the eye, was for the ancient ruins.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  So his journeys throughout the ancient world and— He went first in 1928, and then again, he returned in 1950, ’51. And there’re marvelous sketches from 1951 that are just filled with color and light and— Of the Acropolis. I mean, his trips through Greece and through all of Italy and through Egypt are filled with this sense that these ancient ruins have something we need in the modern world. There’s some mystery here. There’s some power here that we need. We need this juice.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  But how do you take those ancient places and make them relevant for today? And so this is rattling around in his head since 1950. And the moment he saw this site…

SALK:  Wow.

KAHN:  …suddenly it’s like, no, this is the site for a temple. I can build a temple, a modern temple.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  And from the start, you see these sketches. When he first arrived, one of his very first trips, there’re about twenty-odd sketches of the land. Just of the land. And I think only one of them has a figure in it. But the figure is the heroic figure that might as well have stepped out of ancient Greece.

SALK:  Wow.

KAHN:  Or stepped out of the— you know, the sands of Egypt. It is the human and the universe…

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  …from the very start.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  So this site allowed him, for the first time, to say, “Okay. I can take all those feelings I have about these ancient ruins and create something physical out of it.” So in answer to your question, why did this thing obsess him, it was the site, the project, and the man who was your father.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  And their— the way they together sort of conceived of this place. It makes me emotional now, because I feel that we so need this in our world today.

SALK:  Absolutely.

KAHN:  This combination of arts and sciences. This sense that these are not different disciplines. These are different ways of looking at the human experience and different ways of finding the truth in the universe. But both of these people, Jonas Salk and Louis Kahn, they’re interested in finding truth.

SALK:  Yes.

KAHN:  And you know, what makes the universe tick, and universal truths. Not just truths for the day, but something that would last.

SALK:  And that’s the thing that they both shared— I mean, as you put it, the juice.

KAHN:  Yeah.

SALK:  But the sense of nature, the sense of the cosmos. And they literally would talk in these terms. I mean, you know, the transcribed conversations, they’re almost incomprehensible, except to them. But they would talk back and forth in this— in this way. But literally talking about the cosmos and the laws of the universe and how they might be applied. And they shared that. And that’s what generated this and what makes it such an extraordinary place.

KAHN:  My father was somebody who really needed very much to talk through ideas. He wasn’t somebody who sat, you know, in a corner and came up with the idea.

SALK:  Wow.

KAHN:  He needed to speak.

SALK:  Wow.

KAHN:  So this is why the relationship with your father was also so important, because both men liked to speak. They liked to hear each other talk, too.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  They liked to hear themselves talk.

SALK:  Exactly.

KAHN:  But they did speak, you know, sort of a similar language, what they were looking for. And they resonated with each other.

SALK:  Well, it’s so funny because that quality of needing to talk and working through ideas verbally and with somebody else’s mind to bounce off of, I mean, that describes my father, as well.

KAHN:  Isn’t that—? I didn’t know that. That’s so interesting.

SALK:  [over Kahn] No, no. I mean, he would sit in a study and think about a lot of things. But the actual working out of— in terms of writing and stuff, he really depended on hearing himself talk and having it reflected back to him.

KAHN:  I didn’t know. That’s so fascinating.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  I mean, that they both had that same quality. And obviously, they got that from each other. I love the photographs of them looking at the model together. You can kinda hear them talking together about it, and speculating about it. And of course, the design process— I mean, every artist has their own way of doing things. And architects, some work in solitary manners and some work in this kind of talky way.

And I know that the dialogue between your father and my father, that when Lou talked about having such a great client, it was somebody to really— not just a sounding board, but somebody who was also questioning you…

SALK:  Exactly.

KAHN:  …and saying, “I don’t like that idea.”

SALK:  Exactly.

KAHN:  “How’s that gonna work?

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  And of course, this goes to design changes directly.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  That your father would say, well, is it two buildings unified by a court? Is it one building kind of that’s two things? You know, what’s the building? And at one time, there were actually four buildings and two courts.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  And that plan was entirely developed. And there’re people I’ve spoken to who worked on the project who said, “Look, these things are ready to go to bid.” And it was your father, Jonas, calls up Lou and says, “You know, I’m a little worried about—” This is the story from my end; you probably have a different one.

SALK:  Right. No, it’s [inaudible].

KAHN:  [over Salk] But from my end, it’s like, “You know, hey, I think we have a problem here.” “What’s the problem, Jonas?” “Well, the problem is, now that you’ve got two courts, you’re going to have A people and B people. You’ll have factions. I don’t want factions. People have to work together.” And Lou said, “Oh, you’re absolutely right, Jonas. It needs— we need to redo this entirely.” So he walks out in the drafting room and says, “Sorry, guys, it’s off. You know, we have to redesign everything.”

And indeed—I think this perhaps was in Maryland—he came down to visit your father. And so that entire plan, which was ready to be built. You know, how dare you throw that out? But they did. And Jonas gladly said, “This’ll be a better building because of it.” So there is another reason, of course; he loved your father as a client because he was such a marvelous collaborator and they were able to do this together.

But he also loved your father because he paid him by the hour.

SALK:  Oh. I never knew that.

KAHN:  Okay, so as I heard it— as I’ve been told, Jonas understood that an artist has to be supported…

SALK:  Oh.

KAHN:  …to find the truth of something. And if they’re worried only about, like, this is the— You know, here’s the cost; you’re capped out here.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  You’re not gonna get that, necessarily.

SALK:  I never knew that.

KAHN:  Not for— I mean, all the best intentions from the artist, too; but at some point, you hit the wall.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  But Dr. Salk understood, no, no, an artist needs to be continued to be supported. So apparently, anyway, that’s what I’ve heard.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  And of course, the Salk Institute and this project carried my father’s office for many years.

SALK:  Oh, that’s so interesting. That’s amazing.

KAHN:  [over Salk] For those years in which— in which he was working on it.

CUNO:  Now, how quickly did they become such good friends? In other words, they shared a similar past, in the sense they both were children of Jewish immigrants to this country. Was that meaningful to them? Did they grow up in similar circumstances?

KAHN:  [over Cuno] I think so.

SALK:  Yeah. I mean, they were both from immigrant families, both Jewish families. You know, in that sense, they shared the background. And they were both creative people, so—

KAHN:  And they were both small. Not particularly tall.

SALK:  [over Salk] That’s right, that’s right, that’s right.

KAHN:  So—They had something to prove, both of them. I think there’s no question…

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  …that you find that. I mean, that is a quality.

SALK:  Yeah.

CUNO:  Yeah.

KAHN:  They’re both scrappers. Fighters.

CUNO:  So Lou was on the East Coast…

KAHN:  Yeah.

CUNO:  …Jonas was on the West Coast. How did they communicate with each other to develop the kind of trusting relationship so quickly?

SALK:  Really, for, until ’63, when they broke ground, we lived in Pittsburgh.

CUNO:  He must’ve been here a lot, though.

SALK:  Yes, but he was here a lot.

CUNO:  Yeah, yeah.

SALK:  And I don’t know— The only window I have into what they worked together and how they communicated about it was that weekend to our house in Maryland. And Lou came out with an assistant.

You know, what I remember— I was eleven years old, so I remember the models and I remember them going through things. And I have a sense— It was sort of beyond me, whatever they were talking about. But Lou, Lou was like an elf. I mean, he was just magical. You know, of course, he had the scars on his face, so I was a little bit like, what’s this? But— And I don’t think he paid any attention to me at all. But it was just great being around him.

I mean, he just— You know, he had this glow. And so that’s my big sense of them working together. The impression I have is that they become instantaneous friends.

KAHN:  I think that’s true. I do.

SALK:  That they had one conversation and they realized that they had found each other. You know, and then it developed around the project. But there was just an immediate sense of kindred spirits.

KAHN:  Well, of course, there was that very specific question, also, in addition to saying, how do I chose an architect, which your father asked my father…

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  …there was also the idea that your father expressed to Lou, which was, I want to build a laboratory to which I can invite Picasso. I mean, that was— that was, you know manna from heaven…

SALK:  Right. Yeah.

KAHN:  … for my father.

CUNO:  [over Kahn] Your father, Lou Kahn, also said, he said, “I came up with the idea that what he, Jonas, wanted was a place of the measurable, which is a laboratory, and a place of the unmeasurable, which would be the meeting room.” So that gets to the the plan, the development plan. Talk about the earliest concept of the plan, for the institute.

SALK:  Well, it was a whole-body experience. It was about a complete life. And it was about optimizing people’s ability to think and act creatively. And I didn’t know until, you know, only the ten or fifteen years, that Lou had this concept of the measurable and the immeasurable. But my father really understood, people need space. They need to be free of constraints, and they need a place to expand. So his idea of having a meeting center—and I wanna, you know, hear what Nathaniel has to say about it, but—that was an essential part of the concept.  Having the residences and having the meeting center would make this a complete institution.

CUNO:  And they were walkable between one and the other. Give our listeners a sense of the scale of the plan.

SALK:  It sort of surrounds the beginning of a canyon. The meeting house is on the north side of the canyon, and is no more than a quarter of a mile or so from the laboratory buildings. And the residences would be on the south side. And you know, immediately accessible, so that, you know, people could really immerse themselves in the creative work. That, you know, it was all about, how can we optimize people’s creative potential?

KAHN:  And to just suggest to the listeners, this site, it’s in La Jolla, it’s on a bluff, looking at the Pacific. So this canyon aims right at the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, and it’s several hundred feet above the Pacific. So you’re looking at eternity…

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  And the landscape dominates. And the landscape dictated where these places would go. We see this so rarely in planning today. You know, you plunk something down and you put some trees around it and, you know, that’s your site. But these buildings, and these ideas—the idea of a laboratory that’s at the apex of this canyon, and then to the right, on a bluff, truly closer to the sea, really overlooking the sea, is a meeting house.

And the meeting house was a place for the humanities, and to move away from the laboratory, to discuss ideas about consciousness and about, where are we going as a species? What really matters? And what will the world look like in a thousand years?

You know, and then to the south, sort of nestled more in the landscape, in the site, was a string of these residences. Which are so sensitively sited that people—young people especially—who would be visiting for a while, working in the laboratories, or in the meeting house—you know, the idea was to bring great philosophers and such—…

SALK:  Yeah, yeah.

KAHN:  …that they could live there, in the landscape, and have their own little home that would overlook not only the Pacific, but also the canyon. I mean, this is a dream life.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  But it’s also a dream for a human being, that if you’re a thinker, whether you’re a scientist or a humanist or a philosopher, that you need space and light and time and ways to connect, and that architecture can do that for you. That an architecture that responds to beautifully to a place is only adding to it somehow.

And you look at the Greek temples. You know, the hill was really nice before the temple was there, but it’s better with the temple.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  It adds.

SALK:  No, that’s really true about this building.

KAHN:  Somehow it allows you to— You know, when you step into the part that was built, you step into this incredible court, with the sky above you, the eternity of the ocean in front of you, and the rill of water, which goes down through the middle of the court and feels like it’s emptying in the ocean. And you feel, I’m a human being. Not so bad. You know. I mean, I have possibilities, right?

SALK:  Yes.

KAHN:  I can do something. I might come up with an idea today.

And that sense that architecture, in concert with the landscape, it’s not so arrogant as just saying, architecture does this.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  No, it’s architecture and the place, and the architecture somehow growing out of the place. That’s what they were able to achieve.

SALK:  And you know, that’s exactly right, Nathaniel. And this kind of union of the human, the land, the sea and the air, and nature. I mean, the other thing when I think about it, my father really had this thing about nature. So we always had a place that was by water.

KAHN: I didn’t know that, yeah.

SALK: But all of his philosophy and all of his scientific was based on the laws of nature. And so I mean, he often wrote it with a capital N. But you know, after he died, I was kind of, you know, think about his life and I thought, you know, how did that happen? ’Cause here’s basically a city boy who was born in the Bronx and, you know, grew up on Long Island and, you know, a Jewish guy from Russian middle—

CUNO:  Mid Europa.

SALK:  Mid Europa kind of existence, and had this incredible sense of nature and wanted to take the laws of nature and apply them to human beings. So there’s this real unity between human life and the natural world. And I think— when I think about it, Lou had a similar background.

KAHN:  Oh, yeah.

SALK:  And he had the same kind of sense of the cosmos.

KAHN:  Yeah. No, it’s wonderful to hear you say that. I mean, I don’t think my father— Certainly, when I knew him, he never owned a pair of sneakers. So this is not a guy who, you know, was tramping around in the woods.

SALK:  Yeah, nor was my dad.

KAHN:  Right. I mean, he wasn’t a birdwatcher, let’s put it that way.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  But had a bird landed, he sure as hell would’ve been interested.

CUNO:  Now, you told me when he came, when Lou Kahn came to the site, he had been working and he had been visiting, and with the prospect of a consulate building project in Angola.

KAHN:  True.

CUNO:  And that was a sun-drenched landscape.

KAHN:  Yes.

CUNO:  And he comes here and all of a sudden, the sun-drenched landscape.

KAHN:  Yes.

CUNO:  Far different than Philadelphia.

KAHN:  Yes. And I think that’s a fascinating thing, too, because there is, in the Jewish psyche, there is this sense of having come from a sunny land, a desert landscape. And I think when my father first saw Angola— This was in 1960. There was a consulate that he was commissioned to build. It was never built. But he journeyed for the first time to the tropics. And my mother is working on a book, and there are letters in that book that record that trip, as well as his first trip here, to see La Jolla.

And the impressions that he had of the glare and the sun, the intensity of the sun in Africa, immediately made him sort of think about, well, how can my architecture respond to this? How can I respond to the sun, but also control the sun? Because it’s so intense. And Lou was not a guy to say, well, let’s add some curtains. You know, he wanted to find a structural solution to deal with the sun.

And so he evolved this idea of what he called ruins wrapped around buildings. Which was the idea that you have a building and then there’s a building outside the building. And the building outside the building protects the inner building. It protects it from the sun, it protects it from the weather, it protects it— It makes a shadow. And so very soon after the trip to Angola, he comes here and sees this landscape, and suddenly the things he was realizing in Africa also applied here, because this is a landscape of sun. And so many of the concerns that you have in the east—you know, snow, snow loading, doors that have to be able to keep out the cold. All these things go away here, so you really can think about…

SALK:  Wow.

KAHN:  …just the elements of sun and wind and light. And how do I— how do I shape those things? So I think that something was released in him by being in a truly bright, sunny land.

SALK:  [over Kahn] That’s really amazing.

KAHN:  And in a way— You know, I mean, you look at this place and what it was like then, I mean, there was nothing here.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  Just this incredible landscape.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  But it’s a rugged landscape. I mean, and as I say, it is like the ancient world. It is like Greece. You know, it’s dry.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  So there is a kind of sun-blanched quality. And maybe— I don’t know, maybe there’s something deep in the Jewish psyche that remembers…

SALK:  That could be.

KAHN:  …that…

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  …place from where we came.

SALK:  Right. Possibly.

KAHN:  Certainly, Lou felt that when he went to Israel.

SALK:  Mm-hm. That’s amazing.

CUNO:  Well, let’s talk about the evolution of the program. And we mentioned briefly about the four towers becoming reduced to two towers with a greater plaza opened up between them. You also mentioned and we talked about the meeting house and the— and the residences. How quickly did they disappear from the project, and why? Was it just financial?

KAHN:  As I understand it, it was financial. And they didn’t disappear; they were always there.

SALK:  That’s right.

KAHN:  That was always the dream. You know, we talk about the Getty and what you do with this whole Keeping It Modern idea that’s so marvelous, is it is looking back on an idea, on an architect’s conception, or project conception, which is the architect and client. And it’s saying, what are the essential qualities of this thing?

Not just what do we have, but what was the dream? And where did that dream come from? Where are these ideas coming from? And so from the start, this conception was that there were three pieces to it. It was always a tripartite thing.

SALK:  Exactly.

KAHN:  And it remained that way in Jonas’ mind and in Lou’s mind until the very end. It has always been a fragment of the dream that was built.

SALK:  Yes.

KAHN:  The rest of the dream remains. So—

SALK:  Exactly, exactly. And I mean, this was true. My dad actually never fully gave up on this, the building of the meeting center. You know, he died in 1995—what, thirty-five, forty years after the inception of the building. But he never gave up on it. He was always looking for some way to make this finally happen.

CUNO:  Well, even though those buildings weren’t built, it’s still part of the culture of the institute, right? For there to be art and humanities together with the sciences

SALK:  It’s interesting. The history of the institute involves partly having gotten together a bunch of hard scientists who were professional academics, many of whom didn’t share this dream. Like, science was science, and you did science, and this other thing was like some crazy Jonas Salk think about Florence and the Renaissance. And they were very skeptical of it.

My father, you know, continued in his lifetime to introduce as much as he could, and there would be concerts and various kinds of activities on the plaza. And the institute really only took this on after he died. And now, sort of part of their identity and part of their awareness is merging of— a place where you can do art and science together.

You know, I just wanna interject a thought that I’ve often had. Which is, I think this was true for Lou, but certainly for my dad. It wasn’t simply like, let’s put art and science together. It was the realization that they both come from the same source. And so, you know, there’s some superficial things and it’s evolving; but that ultimate vision of it is only now beginning to be incorporated in the nature of the institution.

KAHN:  That’s beautifully said. That it comes from the same source.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  And it was not a pipedream or sort of a quaint idea.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  It’s actually an idea, I think, that we’re seeing just now beginning to be something that actually is not only taken seriously, but I think is essential for the health of a culture. That this cross-fertilization between the arts and the sciences is actually essential to taking the next step as human beings.

CUNO:  Now, we talked earlier about the laboratory buildings and the four got reduced to two, and then there was a garden set between the two. Then the garden disappeared into the form of a plaza, which you’ve described. And Luis Barragan had a role to play in it. Give us a sense of the evolution of the concept. How did it go from a garden to a plaza?

KAHN:  Well, I can certainly talk about the garden, but I wanna hear your story about the four to two.

SALK:  Okay. It’s very similar, but the impression I always had was that my dad was actually wandering around the site at one point—and again, this was all ready to go—and that he just kept nagging at him, there was something wrong. There’s something wrong. He just had that feeling.

And then he hit on it, that we can’t have two courtyards because we’ll have two subdivisions in the institution and it won’t be a unified institution. And he talked to Lou. My brother remembers him being on a plane trip from San Diego to San Francisco. And Lou listened to him and just went, “You know, Jonas, you’re right.” And this was in working drawings. And I once talked to Jack McAllister about this, who was like the main on tech architect. And he was back in Philadelphia. And he said, “We were in working drawings with this, and it was cool. This was a cool building.”

And Lou walks in one day and says, “Throw it all out. We’re gonna do something different.” And they went, “You’re crazy, Lou.” And Lou’s response was, “It’s a chance to build a better building.” And it was.

CUNO:  [over Salk] Did it mean that there would be half as many scientists then, if you went from four to two buildings? Or…

SALK:  No.

CUNO:  …the two buildings that would survive would be larger than the—?

SALK:  Yeah. Same size of the site and the same number of scientists. You know, in terms of risk takers, in terms of courage, just a parenthesis here, but you know, that’s the thing that struck me so much about my dad after he died, in thinking back on his life. The courage that was involved in putting together this vaccine and going, you know, against orthodoxy, was amazing. And you know, in my mind, one of his greatest single acts of courage was this. That he was willing to say, against everybody else’s advice, “Look, we have to scrap this and we have to start over again.”

That ability to have that confidence and that ability to take that risk and that courage to say that just astounds me. You know, my wife Elizabeth often says, “You know, that vaccine thing, Jonas, that was pretty good. But this building, this is genius.”

KAHN:  It’s great. But if you think about it, too, you know, you walk in the Salk court today, it all seems so inevitable.

SALK:  I know.

KAHN:  Like, how could it be any different? But it was totally different.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  And it seems, also, that, you know, in retrospect, of course, it’s obvious. What would you do? You’d walk in the one plaza and then you’d say, “Oh, let’s go see the other one?”

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  I mean, that would suck, right?

SALK:  Right, right.

KAHN:  And so I mean, that’s clearly wrong. We can even see that in our heads. Anybody can see that today…

SALK: Now.

KAHN: …now. But at the time, to realize that— you know, that works of art and scientific breakthroughs are not inevitable. It’s struggle. It’s tough. And you have to have, you know, somebody great to go with…

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  …or you can’t— you’re not gonna get there.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  Somebody who has the courage, as your father did, to say, “This building, as wonderful as it is, will generate the wrong kind of culture.

SALK:  Exactly.

KAHN:  “It won’t be right. So we throw it out.”

CUNO:  Well, talk about the garden in the middle and the— [Kahn: Yeah] and the change from having an orchard of trees in the middle, and removing those trees and having just a plaza.

KAHN:  Sure. It’s interesting because from the start, I talked about temples. And certainly, there was the temple aspect of this. But really, from the start, this was always imagined as a kind of monastery. And the idea of the great— you know, the wonderful monasteries in Assisi or places like that, they were definitely an inspiration for this place.

SALK:  I’ll interject. I mean, that weekend that Lou was at the house, I really have this memory of my dad opening a book and showing me the floorplan of Assisi and…

KAHN:  Really? Oh, wonderful.

SALK:  …that he really talked about—

KAHN:  I didn’t know that.

SALK:  That this is where people could walk down these colonnades and be contemplative. And it was very intentional and it was very much, I think, on both their parts—it was certainly on my dad’s part—to do that.

KAHN:  That’s a wonderful memory, that they specifically talked about that…

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  …and Assisi.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  And so from the start, you know, of course, you have a monastery, you have a monastery garden. That’s sort of a given, right? You have a garden. So it was always thought that this would be a monastic garden in the middle. However, when the two wings were up and there was dirt in the middle of it, the travertine, as I understand it, had already been chosen. Now originally, there had been some thought that perhaps some beautiful Mexican stone that Lou loved the color of it and the qualities, that that could be great, but that was too expensive.

So they actually found that they could get travertine from Tivoli—actual Italian travertine—for a better price. So you know, it came over to Long Beach and was ready to go. But the question was, you know, when we put this travertine in, what are we gonna do in the middle of this? How do we make the garden? What should it be like? And the thought would be, perhaps there would be trees there. You know, it should be green. And there’re models that show that, with trees in the middle.

Somewhere in there, Luis Barragan came up— was brought up to see the site. I don’t think it was necessarily to be a consultant or something like this, but to see the site.

SALK:  The story I heard was that they did bring Barragan up to say, what do you think?

KAHN:  What should we do?

SALK:  What should this be?

KAHN:  What should this be? Maybe the story from Lou’s angle was never— You know, I never asked somebody else. You know, I brought him by to see what he thought. But no doubt.

CUNO:  The three of them met on the site.

KAHN:  They did meet on the site, that’s right.

SALK:  [over Kahn] Yes, yeah. Yeah.

KAHN:  And I think Carlos Vollenrot[sp?] was there, because he was the interpreter, speaking Spanish with Barragan and interpreting. So apparently, Barragan walked into this place in the middle, and gull flew over at that moment. And Barragan said, “Ah, but it’s a plaza,” he says.

SALK:  I think everybody went, “Oh.”

KAHN:  “Oh.” And—

SALK:  “He’s right.”

KAHN:  “He’s right.” And then there was another comment there. Which is, you get a façade to the sky.

CUNO:  To the sky, yeah.

KAHN:  You get another façade.

SALK:  Oh, that’s lovely.

CUNO:  Because the plaza goes right to the water, to the water, to the sky.

SALK:  That’s right.

KAHN:  And Lou said— Lou’s comment when he recalled that moment, he said, “It was such a beautiful idea, and it killed me because it was so beautiful.” And then of course, Lou adds to that, which is such a great comment. He said, “Of course, then I get all those blue mosaics for free.

CUNO:  Yeah.

KAHN:  Which is the blue mosaics of the sea.

CUNO:  Yeah.

KAHN:  So suddenly when you think about it as a plaza, your mind totally changes and the sea becomes now beautiful mosaic. Not just the ocean, it becomes…

SALK:  Wow.

KAHN:  …the continuation of that floor. So at that point, it was clear. Couldn’t have a single tree in that— in that site.

CUNO:  Now, we haven’t yet talked about the studies.

KAHN:  Sure.

CUNO:  And there’re, as I recall, on each laboratory building, there are five towers for studies of— And I know that your father, Lou Kahn, thought that there were two kinds of spaces in the project. There are the clean laboratory spaces; then there was the rug-and-wood study spaces, in which a single person, a scientist, would be in there. Not in the laboratories with a bunch of other scientists, but in the study by himself or herself, looking out, the way the orientation of the windows are, onto the ocean, with an unimpeded view of the ocean.

As if it was in that space that one had to sorta ponder what was happening in the laboratory spaces. Talk about those things.

KAHN:  Yeah, well, I mean, I think one again, this goes back to his relationship with Jonas and this kind of conversation about, how does a scientist think? And that the scientist is somebody who needs really two spaces. And one is the place where you do the experimentation, the laboratory spaces. And those are spaces of stainless steel and soapstone. They’re very clean, they’re kind of hard spaces, and they need certain services coming into them to make them work. And those are the laboratory spaces.

And actually, the Salk floor plates are extraordinarily innovative, in that they’re entirely open for 300 feet long and about a hundred feet wide.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  With not a column in them. So there’re very sophisticated Vierendeel trusses that were enabled by my father’s— the structural engineer that he worked with, August Komendant, who figured this out. And the wonder of that was that Lou also had this idea, which he developed originally at the Richards Medical Towers at the University of Pennsylvania. Actually, before that even. This idea there are served spaces and servant spaces.

And the served spaces are the spaces where you would be doing the laboratory work, and the servant spaces are the spaces that deliver all of the things that you need. So the electricity, the liquid nitrogen, the air supply, the exhaust hoods—all those things, those are all servant spaces.

When I encountered your father here, and I was asking him about the building, he talked about it as if it was a body. He talked about it as the sort of organs of the building, which were the places where the work was going on—the laboratories—and then the places that served those organs, he called them the mesenchynal spaces, where the air flows through. The lungs of the building. The parts of the building that were serving the other parts of the body. So I loved the fact that he talked about the building— He saw it as a living thing.

SALK:  Yeah, he really referred to it as a— as a living organism.

KAHN: So, the laboratory part of the building, is actually, you know, it’s a sandwich. And there are laboratory floors, which are totally open; and then there are servant spaces, which are between them. So you go up a floor and there’s a lower floor that has all the pipes and all the ductwork and everything else running through it. And those things can be fed anywhere into the laboratory spaces below or above. So you’re totally flexible within the spaces of the laboratory. You can move the walls around any way you like.

And the idea— This is, once again, coming from Jonas. The idea that as projects developed, you might need to reconfigure a laboratory. You don’t wanna have to tear down walls. You should be able to just move ’em around. You wouldn’t wanna tear out ducts. You should be able to just feed them from another place. So this idea of an enormously flexible work space, unimpeded, 300 feet by a hundred feet, was quite new at the time.

SALK:  Absolutely.

KAHN:  And it’s still cutting edge.

SALK:  Yes.

KAHN:  And still works, all these years later, which is quite remarkable. I mean—

SALK:  It’s amazing. And—

KAHN:  It’s an amazing thing.

SALK:  The scientists will talk about it.

KAHN:  Will ta— Absolutely.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  And so that— so that kind of clean laboratory space was a piece of it. But also, this structure that had a laboratory space, and then a servant floor, this kind of led to— The question is, what happens outside of that, when you kind of leave that space? And the idea was, well, a scientist also needs to be able to think and to step away and to have a room that is not, a place that is not the hardscape of stainless steel of soapstone, but that— what Lou called the oak and rug world, which is the world of the study, where you think about things. So that was expressed in these study towers, which flank the wonderful court that is in the middle.

SALK:  And— yeah, and that sense of the needing the retreat and being away from the lab…

KAHN:  Yeah.

SALK:  …was something that was very much part of dad’s experience in his life. I mean, he always needed some contemplative space where he could be and do this. And so he was quite conscious of there being this division and this need. If you wanna have a different kind of institution here, you really need to have this different architecture that supplies people, that nourishes them, that does that.

KAHN:  And there is a very specific— I mean, just physically, if you’re on the second floor, you step out of the laboratory, there is a breezeway. And you walk and the wind is coming from the ocean. And you leave that world and you step across sort of this divide, and then you’re in the study.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  It’s not as if you can just open a door and be in the study.

SALK:  Yeah, yeah.

KAHN:  You have to leave that world behind.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  Step outside. Right? That’s the wonder of California, outside. You know, right? Walk across this kind of breezy area, and then you go into your study. So— but it’s interesting. You talk about these scientists who sort of perhaps pooh-poohed the idea of, you know, a scientist just needs a study. We don’t need to have this, you know, humanities stuff going on.

SALK:  Right, right.

KAHN: But then you look at what the scientists have done with their studies, and the senior scientists who have the studies.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  You see them using them for painting studios. Some of them have pianos in them. Some of them have, of course, are just doing their scientific work.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  But many of them have found that their creativity is unlocked. I mean, Roger Guillemin, for instance. I remember going to his wonderful studio.

SALK:  Yeah. Right, right.

KAHN:  And he’s a terrific painter.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  You know. Francis Crick had one of them.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  These are people who, you know, really use these spaces to, as you say, they’re able to go to the window and have their unimpeded view of the Pacific and eternity. And then, then, when they’re ready, they can go back to the laboratory. But think about what we talked about, the materials. That this changing material palette is super important.

CUNO:  Of the buildings, you mean.

KAHN:  In the buildings.

CUNO:  To the concrete, to the teak.

KAHN:  The concrete to the teak.

CUNO:  To the metal.

KAHN:  Yes. And you think about the fact that— Look, the institute is really made out of concrete. It’s concrete. That’s a tough material. I mean, it’s parking garage material, right? But in the hands of Lou and in the hands of people who worked with him— And architecture is a collaborative medium, like filmmaking; you don’t do it all yourself. And he had incredible people working with him.

But concrete is so filled with life and light and it’s sandy colored. And I remember actually, he had a microscope in his office, which he used to look at sand, because the color of the sand, for Salk, was so terribly important.

SALK:  Oh, wow.

KAHN:  But concrete alone wasn’t enough. That’s why we have these wonderful teak— They’re not just inserts; it’s the windows and everything else. But to soften it, is wood. And so even from the outside of the building, it somehow telegraphs as— The wonderful director of the archives of the University of Pennsylvania, where all my father’s stuff is— Bill Whitaker. I was just talking to him about this. And I said, “What— You know, what really does this wood—beyond the fact that you have to have window frames and such—what is it really doing?” And he said, “Well, when you walk in there, you look up there, the wood tells you that someone’s home.”

SALK:  Ah.

KAHN:  What a beautiful— It’s a beautiful phrase. And it’s absolutely true. You know, Lou would’ve liked that.

SALK:  Yeah, absolutely.

KAHN:  You know, that someone’s home. So it does tell you that these studies are almost like your home away from home.

SALK:  I wanna just jump in about the concrete.

KAHN:  Yeah.

SALK:  Because there’s a whole story about that, that I’m sure you know, but originally, there’re original pours of the concrete that really looked ghastly.

KAHN:  Yeah, they—

SALK:  They were gray. I mean, so there’re two aspects to it. One was the composition of the concrete itself. And I think it’s gone forever, but there were a series of pours on the south side of the building, where you could see the evolution and all the different experiments they did, and my fa—

KAHN:  I think you can still see it, down below grade.

SALK:  Okay.

KAHN:  You can still see some of it, yeah.

SALK:  That just tickled my father. I mean, there’re two things about it. I mean, the idea of experimentation, producing and redoing drafts and producing this. And he took such pride in that.

CUNO:  Your father did?

SALK:  Yeah. And about the quality of the concrete and…

KAHN:  Yes.

SALK:  …that it had this rosy hue. And the first time I went to the site, I remember him showing us the pours and, you know, just talking about this.

CUNO:  I think Lou Kahn called it molten stone.

KAHN:  Yes, one of his terms for concrete was molten stone.

SALK:  And then the—

KAHN:  Yeah.

SALK:  The additional thing is that the original pours were with plywood forms, but you got the imprint of the plywood on the concrete. And they just went, “We can’t have this.” And they developed something, which I think was new at the time, which was coating the plywood forms in plastic, so that you get this incredibly smooth texture.

KAHN:  A urethane coating, yeah.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  On the plywood forms. No, it’s true. And he worked with Fred and Gus Langford, two brothers. Swedish, I think, originally, from Philadelphia, who have gone on to make incredible water parks out of concrete. They’re the concrete geniuses behind so much of Lou’s work.

SALK:  Wow.

KAHN:  But the Langfords figured out— The formwork at Salk is— It’s very complex, because Lou wanted that very smooth surface. But also, he didn’t wanna go in afterwards and polish something up or, you know, plug a hole. We can talk about that for a moment, but— He wanted the building to tell you how it was made. That mattered to him, the idea that the building was somehow honest and informative about itself.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  That the building was speaking to you.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  “This is how I was made.” You know, “What do you think about this,” right? So where the forms join it’s tricky, because concrete squeezes out. You know, how do you deal with the kinda roughness of that.

SALK:  Right.

CUNO:  Which leaves an edge mark.

KAHN:  It leaves an edge, right. So the Langfords figured out an amazing way— Fred figured out an amazing way to bevel the formwork, so that when you peeled it away, it made a wonderful sharp knife edge, which you see. It’s a kind of a triangular raised thing. And I always wonder— One of the things I love when you go the Salk, when the sun is raking across that surface, you see these incredible highlights and shadows. And my guess is, Lou did not anticipate that.

I think as with everything else, there’re wonderful accidents that happen. Of course, you can claim then later.

SALK:  Right, right.

KAHN:  But my guess is he— when he saw that, he said, “Man, this is pretty swell.” Because boy, when you see sun raking across that surface, it’s terrific. And not an ornament.

SALK: Right.

KAHN:  That’s a record of how the building went together.

CUNO:  Now, the buildings open in what, 1966?

SALK:  The temporary labs were set up in 1963. I think they moved in in ’65; but I’m not positive.

CUNO:  Did your father ever talk about, or do you remember, the opening itself and who spoke at the opening? Was there music played at the opening? [inaudible]

SALK:  [over Cuno] No, I don’t know, actually. I was, you know, off in boarding school and I, you know, wasn’t that privy to it.

CUNO:  Now, the buildings have been very important in the lives of both your fathers. And I’m interested, as we close out the podcast, about how they responded to the buildings themselves on the day in which it opened. Did they feel like they’d managed to accomplish what it was they intended to accomplish? It was only partially built and they still had the hopes of building the meeting houses, as we said, and the studies. But this is [a] fundamentally different building in the career of Lou Kahn; and certainly, it was a culmination of a— of a project that began with your father, so—

SALK:  Yeah.

CUNO:  So how do you think they felt about it at the opening itself?

KAHN:  Well, I mean, my father was sixty-five when Salk opened. And I think, at least from what I’ve heard—I wasn’t there—but from what I’ve heard, he felt like it was the first building that he really kinda got it right. Like, I’ve arrived. I’m just getting going now.

SALK:  Wow.

KAHN:  At sixty-five years old. So I think that gives you a sense, also, for the time scales in human life; that it takes what it takes. It takes as long as it takes.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  And to be sixty-five years old and just feel like you’re just getting going. I mean, gee, that makes me feel pretty good, you know?

SALK:  Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

KAHN:  I mean, there’s hope.

SALK:  That’s right.

KAHN:  But I think there’s such wonderment in that, that I think my father also felt at the opening, this is a way forward. I know what I’m doing now.

CUNO:  What about Jonas?

SALK:  I think— Again, I don’t know what he felt when it opened, but partly, for him, it was such a long process. I’m not sure there was ever a moment when it opened, because even when it opened, the south building was not finished, there was no auditorium, there were a number of things. It was an evolving entity to him. But the the simple thing to say is, my father loved that building. It was like a family member to him.

And you know, he would walk around and he would just unconsciously sort of caress the wall, as he was walking by. You know, I think it was really one of the really— most important thing and proudest thing in his life. He loved to show people, he loved to talk about it, he loved the process of what had happened. But that building was really like offspring to him.

KAHN:  At the end of Casablanca, you know, Louis and Rick are walking off and— Rick, of course, played by Humphrey Bogart, says to Claude Rains, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” [they laugh] And I think of that building as being the record of a beautiful friendship.

SALK:  Wow.

CUNO:  Now, a few years later, you father, Lou Kahn, famously said in a lecture, he said, “The great desire to express was sensed by Salk, the scientist. The scientist, snuggly isolated from all other mentalities, needed more than anything the presence of the unmeasurable, which is the realm of the artist. It is the language of God.”

KAHN:  Yeah, well, it’s a heady comment. You know, but I think the scientist also deals with the unmeasurable and the measurable.

SALK:  Yeah.

KAHN:  I mean, I think there’s a duality there that Lou was making. Of course, as the artist, he sort of puts the artist above the scientist, you know, a little bit. But it’s true that I think both our fathers felt that where ideas come from— And this is something that the Salk is, of course, intimately engaged with today. The nature of consciousness. Where does it come from?

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  What’s an idea? What’s a thought?

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  You know, Francis Crick, at the end of his life, this is what he was thinking about.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  What is consciousness? What is an idea? Where do these things come from? So Lou thought that they came from a place that he called the immeasurable. I mean, really, it’s sort of an interesting and rather simple idea, that they come from somewhere where things are not— They’re just kind of potentialities.

And then through working on something, you make it real. You make it measurable. But it has to sort of start with the immeasurable. And ultimately, you hope if it’s a good enough measurable thing…

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  …it becomes immeasurable.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  And you think about the vaccine. You know, the measurable is making it work.

SALK:  Right.

KAHN:  The immeasurable is the crazy idea. You know, how can—

CUNO:  To pursue it in the first place.

KAHN:  To pursue it in the first place.

SALK:  Right, right.

KAHN:  The measurable is how, and then once it’s done. And then the immeasurable is the life that it gave to all those people.

SALK:  Exactly. Exactly.

CUNO: So it’s been fantastic talking with you two about your fathers and their vision for this project and the project’s culmination and what we now know as this magical building called the Salk Institute of Biological Studies. So thank you so much for your time on the podcast.

KAHN:  Thank you.

SALK:  Thank you. It’s been— it’s been great.

CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit Thanks for listening.

JIM CUNO:  Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.

NATHANIEL KAHN: At the end of Casablanca, you know, Louis and Rick are walking off and— Rick, of...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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