San Diego’s Salk Institute

Urban Planning

The Salk Institute is an other-worldly place as I had seen it on posters and calendars for many years before I experienced it first hand. At certain times of the day, nearer sunset, the space can take your breath away. The concrete and granite buildings and plaza are much more transcendental than harsh. The travertine pavers have pulpy texture, and the Roman-esc ‘pozzuolanic’ concrete has a glowing softness too. While mid-day is rarely as nice, the site is never hot due its ocean front location (Mitt Romney couldn’t buy a better lot in La Jolla).

Its power comes from the dynamic tension between its very formal/classical plaza + excellent contemporary architecture + the forced perspective on the mesa edge/ocean natural setting = Wow.

I agree with Witold Rybczynski that modernist architecture sits best in nature and this is such a place looking in one direction (but, don’t turn around). Adding the sound of the plaza’s water rubicon/falls, and scent from its formal rows of orange trees, the experience can be sublime… then you get back in your car and drive through suburban office park hell to go home.

If it wasn’t perched on the side of a cliff, I would bet this space would be the only recognizable place to a San Diegan today a 1,000 years from now…

This is inspired by a terrible article critical of ‘placemaking’ written by James Russell (I’m purposely not providing a link as it was simply a hit on Fred Kent’s excellent Project for Public Spaces group) who states that the Salk was an example of a great ‘public space’ generated without public input. Well, it is not. The Salk is a private institution and the space is only open to the public during work hours and patrolled by security guards. This type of semi-private/public space was discussed thoroughly during the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ summer and their squatting protests on public/private Zuccotti Park.

The idea of ‘public space’ is a relatively new with its revolutionary genesis in our country found in Frederick Law Olmsted’s ‘Central Park’ and Yosemite Valley national park plan. Abraham Lincoln appointed Mr. Olmsted to ‘create a place where all men are equal,’ and these very large public spaces are literal metaphor of this very big idea… We are the land of the free.

While the Salk Institute is a powerful place, true public space is decidedly more powerful, transcendental and revolutionary. And from this, I better appreciate why people such as Lincoln, Olmsted, Lou Kahn, Jonas Salk become historical figures as we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

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