Jonathan Salk speaks at the DFC Technology and Innovation Summit in 2015

Updated 9/23

I would like to start with a disclaimer. These are my personal reflections on the relationship between Jonas Salk and Lou Kahn, but understand that during the time of their collaboration on the building I was 11 or 12 years old. So some of what I say will be from the worm’s-eye view of a pre-adolescent with a busy father. But much of what follows is from thoughts and readings and insights I have had over the course of my life.

It was a struggle to put this talk together. There are so many things to say about both men, their ideas, the way their minds worked, their relationship. As I sat the other night, trying to wrestle it into an orderly progression of ideas, I realized that, in an elemental way, it is completely understandable that I couldn’t. That I couldn’t reflects, in some measure, how Jonas Salk and Lou Kahn thought, spoke and worked. There was a dreamlike and associative quality to both men’s thought processes. In trying to convey my impressions…well, some of it will take some of the same form.

Each lived partly in a poetic, intangible world and partly here on ground, making tangible things. Each was in touch, as Kahn came to say in the early stages of the Institute — with both the measurable and the immeasurable — the scientific and the poetic. Each thought and created at the level of absolutes, of purity, of, as each would often say, the cosmos. Yet individually, and together, they accomplished and made things of lasting value here in the physical realm.

Their relationship began around 1959 when my father went to Lou Kahn to ask him about how one goes about choosing an architect. My father wanted to build, to create, a new and different kind of Institution, and he knew he would need the right kind of building to house it. When they met, they immediately knew that they understood one another. They both knew that science and art and intellect and spirit are all connected. My father wanted to build an institution that reflected, studied and enacted that. Lou Kahn was thrilled to have a client who thought on such terms.

In retrospect, I would say that they both understood something fundamental – that buildings reflect and create and influence the nature of the institution they are built to house. Kahn new that he could influence people’s lives through the design of institutions. My father intuitively knew the same thing. He knew that the building that was going to house the Institute had to reflect his vision of the organization.

My father immediately declared that he had found his architect. Kahn, on the other hand, had found his favorite client.

And he was a great client — challenging, thoughtful, creative and relentless in pursuit of what is right. Kahn called him, “My most trusted critic.” And he was. My father was part of, or aware of, almost every design decision that went into the planning and building of the Institute. And his critique had a significant influence on major elements of the design

I will read the following from Louis I Kahn: In the realm of architecture by David B. Brownlee and David G. De Long:

Salk and Kahn quickly discovered they were of like mind — indeed, each grew to regard the other as a collaborator. Their working relationship was characterized by a dialogue that sometimes drifted into abstract and philosophical terrain. To Salk, work at the frontiers of biological science necessarily raised broad questions about the future of humanity — about the meaning of life, values, and the nature of man. Kahn warmly welcomed these themes. Salk recalls that “It was not uncommon for other people to watch us and listen and be utterly confused” although they understood each other perfectly.

Any notions Kahn and Salk may have had when work first started on the project did not take the form of strict formal or spatial requirements; “We just began to play, “ Salk recalls.

The overall design, the master plan, that emerged contained three elements: a laboratory building, residences and a meeting center. In order to understand Salk and Kahn, I have to say, at the outset, a few words about the meeting center, which has not been built.

For much of my life, I had thought of the meeting center as a convenient place to, well, hold meetings. In preparing for this talk, I learned something that I had not fully realized: this part of the plan was not simply a place with a large auditorium and rooms in which to meet, it was to be the heart and soul of the new kind of institution that Salk and Kahn envisioned. It was to be a place, a center, where the scientific meets the poetic, the philosophical, even the artistic. And it was designed as such.

Kahn called it the measurable and the immeasurable. The meeting center was to be the heart of the institution — the immeasurable. The laboratories, were to be about the measurable. The immeasurable was the poetry and art and science all rolled into one place — for human beings to meet and talk and think and write and create.

Thus, interestingly, the laboratory building that we all think of as “The Salk Institute” was only part of a larger whole — a whole that included two locales — one for biological science and one for the fusion of science and the humanities. As I read their words about the plans, I realized something else. These two men were not planning a building or a set of buildings. They were planning an institution. They were planning not only the physical space; they were planning about the activities and the thoughts and experiences and creativity of the people who would occupy them. Every concrete slab, every detail, every design decision was not just about the building itself; it was about people — the people who would wander and live and work and think and eat here.

I only met Louis Kahn a couple of times. The most extensive was a visit to our summer cottage on a lake in Western Maryland. It must have been the spring of 1961 or 1962. I was 11 or 12. Lou and an assistant came to spend the weekend with us and go over the plans for the buildings.

I am left with a pastiche of images: Lou Kahn’s face, scarred from a childhood incident. I remember being both attracted and repelled. The scars were frightening to me, and I didn’t know what to make of them. But Lou Kahn himself? He sparkled. He was an elfin man who seemed so engaged in his work. He was warm — not to me — but to the process he and my father were engaged in. I don’t think he took much notice of me at all. But his light and energy were captivating.

I look back now at the remarkable opportunity I had to see both these men together and in action. At the time, to me, it was business as usual: more stuff about my father’s Institute that was taking up increasing amounts of his time and attention and was going to mean a move from my native Pittsburgh to distant San Diego. Nevertheless, the one way to keep contact with my Dad was to remain interested in what he was doing and whatever project he had going. This one, at least, had scale models and drawings and was about things I could more or less understand (in contrast to discussions of viruses, antibody titers, and immunological response). I think I just sensed the interest and intensity of these two men as I drifted in and out of their conversations, at times looking over their shoulders at whatever engaged them.

So, I remember Lou Kahn’s face, scarred and bright with life and creativity.

I remember a model of a study tower on our breakfast table. With spaces between the floors so that light could flow into the laboratories.

I remember my father showing me plans of the monastery at Assisi, talking about the colonnades where people could walk and contemplate and discuss higher things and subjects. And how he wanted the Institute to have the same feel.

I remember discussions of 9 foot high spaces to supply gas, water, air conditioning to the floors below. I even recall trying to join in the conversation by joking about 9-foot tall plumbers and electricians.

I also remember some larger decisions being discussed. Something about interstitial spaces and something about courtyards.

In 1961-62 Kahn’s design for the building was of four rectangular laboratories with two courtyards. This was the plan that was signed and contracted for. The architects were in working drawings.

Two things about that plan nagged at my father: The first regarded the delivery of utilities to the laboratory spaces. The plan involved an ingenious and technologically advanced honey-combed interspace about five feet high. Given that the idea was to have maximum flexibility as each new laboratory was designed and built, my father was concerned that the plan would not be sufficiently adaptable and that if the space were so narrow, it would be difficult to service and maintain. In their discussions, they arrived at the current solution, the 9-foot spaces you see today.

A bigger issue involved the courtyards. He was concerned that any institution with two courtyards would develop two separate cultures and split the integrity of the institution itself. This, he knew, would never do. When he explained this to Lou Kahn, Lou understood immediately. The decision was finalized that weekend. Kahn took the train back to Philadelphia and announced they were scrapping the current design. His architects looked at him and said, “Lou, you’re crazy we can’t do that.” And Kahn replied, “It’s a chance to build a better building.” And it was.

I still marvel at what my father did — at what both men did. It is, in my mind, my father’s greatest single act of courage and creativity to know that the plan wasn’t right and then to critique an established architect, go against all kinds of schedules and timelines…and prevail. And Lou Kahn on his side, had no trouble listening to Jonas, seeing that he was right, go back to his team and tell them to throw out everything they had been working on for months, all because he, too, knew what was right.

Knowing what was right. Each knew that there was such a thing as “right.”

To give you a sense of this, I have pulled some quotations from two events that were recorded and transcribed. One was a luncheon in the early 60’s at which both spoke. The other was a conversation between the two of them that took place in 1972, not long before Kahn died.

Each had a way of expressing himself that was simultaneously eloquent and incomprehensible. So if you feel confused, or even like laughing, it’s OK. I do. But I have also come to realize that there often was much content in what they said. So listen as well.

Kahn: (About Salk)….and I know the close and undisturbed associations that we had on this building, in which you questioned me because you understood the importance of the principle, whatever principle — yours or mine — and that it couldn’t fly away; it couldn’t be destroyed by reason or any such thing.

A principle that “couldn’t be destroyed by reason or any such thing….”

Kahn: (On Salk, again) He sees the arts as being grown from an inspiration within us the inspiration to live, the inspiration to express, the inspiration to question, the inspiration to learn…they are inspirations within us from which I would say the institutions of man are derived.

Inspirations within us from which the institutions of man are derived…

Kahn: …because the wonder in man stems from the way he was made, because everything in nature records in what it makes, how it was made, and we also are the recipient of this custody of the laws of nature in that we, within us, are the custodians of the laws of the universe.

Custodians of the laws of the universe…

JS: Well, it doesn’t take too much thinking to recognize there is more to man than the mechanics, the machinery of his body. It is clear that man has what we call a spirit and a soul and that man’s humanistic and artistic expression are as much a part of the expression and the function of the structure of which he is made. That it is quite possible for a bridge to begin to be built between the sciences and the arts, the humanities, using biology as the connecting piece.

A bridge between the sciences and the arts using biology as the connecting piece.

JS: There is a unity to all this, as is revealed by the way in which Mr. Kahn and I have interacted in order to create a building of concrete that has all of the aspects of a living organism with a capacity to grow change and evolve.

…a building of concrete that has all of the aspects of a living organism…

Pretty heady stuff.

Here is an exchange between the two in 1972 highlighting both their play and the incomprehensibility of it.

JS: In inasmuch as we speak of this as diversity, then I am interested in seeing how I can discover the convergence in that which has diverged and in that way arrive at the source, meaning the nature of the beginning and relationship of it all, in a sense, to the cosmos.

LK: Oh yes. To the cosmos, to all the laws.

JS: To the plan of the cosmos and to the laws of nature.

LK: Which is one law, really, you know, and this is, I say it is order.

JS: That is right, when you come down to it, that is the word I use constantly and that is order, meaning plan, meaning relationship.

LK: Meaning inherent. It is almost like – if you exclude the word plan for a minute and…

JS: Design.

LK: No, and relegate that to rule rather than order

JS: You mean use the word “plan” for the word “rule” rather than “order”.

LK: That is right

JS: That is agreeable.

LK: That is agreeable?

JS: Oh, entirely; they are two different things.

Two dreamers. To read their words makes us laugh. We smile at the naiveté and the embarrassingly poetic and absolute that suffuses their dialogue.

We laugh and yet, you know what? This is what made that building, that institution, such a remarkable place. They dreamed and they thought of higher things.

I am, sometimes, still a skeptic. As a young man, I would roll my eyes at their silliness. But the older I get, the more I understand that there is something that both Salk and Kahn felt, something that both Jonas and Lou got, something with which those buildings are infused, something that comes from the physical material and forms and shadow and light and interacts with the sentient neurobiological systems of the collections of molecules and cells and organisms and minds and spirits that walk and work and learn in that scientifically sacred environment.

I’d like to close with a few words about the stone with my father’s quotation on it that is at the entrance to the plaza.

After Jonas died, there was talk of what to do to memorialize him at the Institute. What to do? A statue? As grand as he was, it wasn’t about him; it was about nature, about order, about ideas, about relationship, about spirit. It was about the building. A sculpture just seemed too intrusive. The building itself is so much of a piece.

As this conversation was going on, I got a call from David Rinehart. David was an architect who worked both on the original building with Kahn and collaborated with Jack McAlister on the design of the East Building.

As we talked, David pulled out a large piece of blank paper and quickly sketched the rectangular site on which the laboratory buildings sit. He drew diagonals from the corners and pointed to where they intersected. It was precisely in the middle of the entrance to the plaza. He pointed to that spot and suggested we do something there.

We came upon the idea (it is likely that David led me into the idea) of a simple stone or tablet with a quotation from Dad. David talked about how it could be made of the materials of the building: a piece of travertine marble with an inlay of brushed stainless steel. We both were excited. This way, he would be part of the building and, in a very palpable sense, the entire building itself would become his memorial — a living, breathing, functioning, organism that he would be part of, in the most modest of ways. It would even be on the ground where you could take it or leave it, notice it or not.

I was sent to find a quotation, which fortunately came to light when I read a speech he gave in 1975 on accepting the Nehru award in India. “Hope lies in dreams, in imagination and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.”

Things were put in the hands of committees and administrators for several months.

As happens, things changed. I discovered that the plan was altered — slightly. The placement of the stone had been changed. It was moved to the forward-most position in that little passageway entrance to the courtyard. It was a matter of a few feet — maybe 10 or 20. But it seemed wrong. One of the lovely things about the original placement was that the vista on the plaza remained unchanged. You could come up the stairs, take a few steps and be swept away by the building and the air, sea and sky…all without having to see or know or think about Jonas Salk. If you paused a few moments, you might notice a stone with a quotation of his. But you didn’t have to. And the vista and the building and the sea and the sky remained about themselves, about nature and architecture and biology and the stuff that poems are made of.

So, as the plan went through committees, the placement was moved toward the plaza, where the stone and quote would be part of the view. I was quietly aghast … and conflicted. Were they right? Should he be grandly displayed to the world: “This is Jonas Salk’s place.” In my critical, filial way, I had often sold my Dad short. Maybe this was another time.

I drove down from Los Angeles and met David at the Institute with one of the heads of building design and maintenance. I remember, in the days leading up to the meeting, fretting, as I was going against the committees of the board of trustees and of the Institute and changing plans at the eleventh hour. And at the same time, I thought, well if my Dad could change the building plans, I can speak up and do this.

I recall pacing back and forth between the two possible locations. It became even more clear to me, in the physical act of walking on the plaza, that it was important not to impose Dad, Jonas, on that experience.

David considered, and paced and thought and listened. He finally said, standing on the original point, “This is Jonas’s Spot.”

It was, and it worked.

The main point of this story is that it is all about an idea, a vision, a sense of what is right, remaining true to that and making sure that the details are carried out in a way to make that vision come to light. In this case, two people a generation removed from Salk and Kahn — a son of Jonas and a disciple of Lou’s – came together, briefly — in a kind of an echo — to collaborate, relate and make a small contribution of a vision with attention to detail. That is what both Jonas and Lou did with this building; that is what they did with their lives.

Each man a dreamer with the courage to make dreams real.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak.


1 Wolff Olins & Flamingo, ‘Game-Changers’, 2013, [Online] [20/02/2014]

2 Kaufman, B. interview by Dean, J. ‘Is This the World’s Most Creative Manufacturer’, Inc Magazine [online] [29/12/13]

3 Skelton, C. (Skype interview, 27th January, 2014)

Jonathan Salk is a psychiatrist based in Los Angeles. He is a co-author *with Jonas Salk) of World Population and Human Values: A New Reality.