Inspiration and Transcendence as an Aspect of Monumentality: The Courtyard of Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute

Creating an environment designed to inspire inspiration itself is no easy task. In many ways, it is equivalent to creating a religiously transcendent place. How does one represent inspiration in form? How does one prepare a place for enlightenment to occur? This paper strives to analyze Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute as a place of both rational and spiritual transcendence; that is, how Kahn links inspiration in architecture with his understanding of monumentality.

The Purpose
The Salk Institute was founded in 1960 by Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine. He hired Louis Kahn as the chief architect in order to create an institution that would unite people “from different disciplines and backgrounds” to explore “the organization and processes of life.”1 Kahn sought to construct a space that would facilitate collaboration and synthesis across the sciences as well as foster thought, meditation, and genius; the challenge was to create a space for the greatest scientific minds to work, and also to think. Perhaps the most interesting concept Kahn tried to realize was the idea of “a lab fit for Picasso”.2 Science and art were meant to meld at the Salk Institute; intuition, inspiration, and rational thought ought to blend; genius must be accommodated, nurtured, and given space to roam. In order to achieve a space that supersedes these boundaries and combines these various elements, whether they be disciplinary, rational, or divine, Kahn had to find a way to seamlessly integrate poetics and science into a single unit, a transcendent but utilitarian architectural chimera.

The Plan: Beaux-Arts
The Salk Institute is a Beaux-Arts plan: perfectly symmetrical. Perhaps Kahn chose a Beaux-Arts design because so many successful monumental structures have employed symmetry in achieving timelessness. Kahn himself was educated at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and its influence is visible in Khan’s revival of the reflective plan.3 In essence, the Salk Institute is two identical, parallel buildings, each lined with five wings of offices. The two buildings are separated by a wide, concrete courtyard which itself is bisected by a long, narrow strip of water that drops off into a lower-level fountain and sitting area. The courtyard below terminates into a sloping canyon of sandstone Southern California coastal sagebrush which leads out to the Pacific Ocean a half-mile or so away. When one stands at the head of the fountain, one cannot quite see the termination of the courtyard, and the gray concrete seems to meld with the Pacific, as if the whole ocean were pouring into the Salk institute through this narrow strip of water, or as if the fountain were flowing directly into the ocean. This is the great moment in art in which Kahn incorporates the ocean, horizon, and sky as integral parts of his architectural whole, or perhaps visa versa—the Salk institute becomes an integral part of the sea and sky.

The Open Courtyard and Infinity

The overall design of the Salk Institute in many ways parallels Thomas Jefferson’s plan for the University of Virginia. With the University of Virginia, Jefferson used a Beaux-Arts, neoclassical design on top of a small hill with a central lawn that terminates on one end with the famous Rotunda (the pinnacle of education), and on the other end with an open view of the beautiful Virginian landscape. Jefferson thus directly incorporates a symmetrical layout with a central garden for meditation, reflection, breathing space, and clarity of mind. The one end is closed by the architectural symbol of knowledge (the library), and the other open into the wide world of nature and the sublime.4 The central courtyard area in both cases delineates clearly between places for work, study, science, and places for thought, relaxation, and meditation.5

The power of Jefferson’s famous lawn relies heavily on the incorporation of the surrounding landscape and the connection of the building to the larger world, just as Kahn’s open courtyard derives its perspectival force in part from uniting the courtyard with the sea and sky beyond. The Salk Institute is an example of the Renaissance conception of correspondences, that the microcosm of the earth is a reflection of the macrocosm of the heavens, that all things are are connected within some great, cosmic synecdoche. Kahn’s thin fountain seems to extend into the infinity of the Pacific, and even further to unite with those blue sunny San Diego skies. It is the miraculous nature of infinity (the perspectival wonder), that reminds the viewer standing in the Salk Institute courtyard of his place in the world, his smallness or greatness, that his actions, ideas, and study will extend outside the property of the Institute into the infinity beyond, and conversely, that this power of creation and infinite propagation seems to be a divine gift, handed down from the sun itself.

Infinity is a quality that relates both to monumentality and inspiration. According to Kahn, “The sense of wonder is so very important to us because it precedes knowing. It precedes knowledge… The immeasurable is the one thing that captivated the mind; the measurable makes little difference.” It is those many aspects of the universe that are simply beyond human comprehension (the profound, the infandum) that confound and dumbfound the human mind and create a sense of wonder in man. To comprehend something is to have knowledge of it, and to have knowledge of something is to ruin its mystery. When one looks down the thin fountain stream that divides the courtyard, the illusion of infinite continuation is created as the concrete and horizon blend. Rationalizing the courtyard, measuring and quantifying it potentially destroys the phenomenon. Kahn’s fountain, set within the grid of the courtyard, creates a one-point perspective in concrete and water, the vanishing point disappears in the sea. Kahn gives any person standing in his courtyard the opportunity to experience the sublime, to transgress the empirical, scientific perspective and instead to become captivated, fascinated, to hand oneself over to the wonder of infinity.6

The Elemental Temple

Part of the greatness of the Salk Institute is the way it combines all the classical elements (earth, wind, water, fire, air) in a modern structure. The element of water cuts through the textured concrete, which is the structural, earth element of the institute. From here, the sky brings us into the element of air and finally, burning in the sky, the fiery sun illuminates the whole structure. Each element interacts and depends on the others. Water we might take as a symbol of the flow of energy, the lifeblood of the Salk Institute, while the concrete is the bones, the structural form. The sky then becomes the realm of the divine, the space the courtyard seems to extend infinitely into, while the sun’s rays make the whole structure visible. Kahn said that “Integration is the way of nature. We can learn from nature”, and though this quote isn’t referring specifically to the merging of the primeval elemental forces in his architecture, it fits nonetheless—by integrating the primordial elements into the Salk Institute, he achieves the feeling of ancientness and timelessness requisite for any monumental work.7

Kahn uses water in the Salk Institute to give it a zen-like atmosphere, and he employs the element in a way not unlike Mies’ Seagram Building in New York City. The Seagram Building, which Kahn described as “a beautiful lady in corsets” used reflecting pools in front of the skyscraper to attain a temple-like atmosphere, tranquil, calm, separating the building from the street and muffling the noise of the chaotic New York hustle and bustle.8 Water is integral to the creation of a silent space. And silence, in turn, is integral to meditation and the birth of inspiration.

Light, “What slice of the sun does your building have?”

Kahn paraphrased the above line from a poem by Wallace Stevens to express his understanding that structure is defined by light. He felt light is a magical substance. Light is utterly invisible, undetectable unless it reflects off of something. It seems not to exist unless there is something for it to bounce off of, and reciprocally, any object must also remain invisible unless there is light to bounce off it. We might also note that the immeasurable quality of light, the paradox of its simultaneous existence as a wave and a particle, fits it neatly into the realm of the immeasurable, and thus the awesome. Perhaps Kahn’s sensitivity to light and shadow was particularly acute on account of the fact that he regularly hid his scarred face under a deep hat as a young man, thus his eye for light and shadow became particularly well-honed.9

In any case, his tour in Greece reveals his unique perception of light as it plays across the ancient temples, their forms shifting with the lability of the sun. Note how the forms of these ancient temples become colorful, and attain an almost mirage-like ephemeralness, as if they might evaporate into steam. Kahn’s point here is that, while these structures are solid, permanent and mute, they come alive, speak, change colors, moods, even seem to have movement when hit by the sun. Light gives life to their form.

Natural light is therefore paramount in Kahn’s works. The Art Historian Alexandra Tyng relates the following anecdote regarding Kahn’s fascination with natural light:

Kahn was intrigued by the nuances of mood created by the time of day, the weather, and the seasons. Scorning the static artificiality of electric light, he would often sit at his desk between the tall windows of his office, waiting until the daylight was completely gone from the room before deigning to reach for the light switch. He believed that the changeable quality of daylight gave life to architecture because one’s relationship to a building changed according to the light surrounding and penetrating it. For this reason, no space was truly a space unless it received the life-giving touch of natural light.10

If, as Kahn thought, form is a result of the interplay between an object and light, then we can say that the form of architecture changes depending on variations in light, color, intensity, as a result of the time of day and year. And what a perfect place to observe the power of light: San Diego has one of the most moderate climates worldwide; it is sunny almost perennially. As a result, Kahn angles the windows of his parallel office/lab towers westward toward the sea and setting sun; each window reaches out to grasp its own slice of sun; the whole structure is heliotropic.

Silence: the Void

Kahn believed that silence was the opposite of light, and the combination of the two creates inspiration. Silence, strictly speaking, is the absence of sound; it is a void, emptiness, nothingness. It can be compared to structure: structure has no form without light, it too is nothing, a void; without light, structure and silence are merely the potential for form. In Alexandra Tyng’s words, silence is “the desire to express” whereas light is the “means of expression.” At the point where these two forces meet lies the instantaneous moment of inspiration. Tyng extends the analogy further to compare the relationship between silence and light to the poetic versus the rational, the yin versus the yang, the feminine versus the masculine:

The poet, who is comfortable in the realm of feeling and intuition, will follow his urge to express for as long as possible before finding the means of expression that would put his images into concrete words. On the other hand, the scientist, who is at home in the rational world, might stay as long as he could in the realm of light, collecting facts and figures to prove his hypothesis before acknowledging its connection with wonder and mystery.11

There is something almost Blakeian about Kahn’s sense of duality and paradox in the universe. The idea that something can come from nothing, that the void is a vast expanse of potential that merely needs to be animated or illuminated is an almost mystical conception of architecture. To many, it might seem an implausible philosophy—yet miracles often seem dubious to those who have never experienced them.

Poetics and Inspiration
The poet and teacher Dr. Gideon Rappaport argues that the relationship between inspiration and the human mind is a reciprocal one: “It takes two, the poet and his muse. But the muse cannot be compelled. She may be invoked or appear uninvited, but she can dwell only where a place is prepared for her.”12 The courtyard of the Salk Institute is a place uniquely prepared and equipped for the arrival of the inspiring muse. Inspiration is an ephemeral, divine phenomenon. It is an enlightenment in the miniature. One can only prepare one’s mind, make a place ready for the muse—but inspiration cannot be forced.

Similarly, monumentality is a quality that is eternal, but also seemingly random. One can beg for monumentality, incorporate all the attributes whose aggregative force seems to make monuments monumental, but the quality itself simply cannot be compelled. Monumentality is a divine phenomenon, a transcendent feature of a work that usually is not present, and seems to only occur by thaumaturgy.

Furthermore, inspiration takes effort, patience, and time—thus, for 360 days of the year, the sun sways north and south along the western horizon of the Pacific as the seasons pass and the Earth tilts on its axis, and it does so out of alignment with the line of the fountain. Only for a brief few days does the sun perfectly line up with the fountain, and the whole structure takes part in a galactic alignment, an inspirational equinox. By incorporating the essential element of time into the architectural experience, the building becomes part of time itself, and achieves monumentality through the melding of eternity and form. The whole structure is a monumental metaphor for inspiration, a metaphor for the rare, divine moment when the muse speaks to man and ideas are born from the void.

It’s been said that part of the difficulty with discussing architecture is the fact that buildings are, in and of themselves, inexorably mute. And so is Kahn’s Salk Institute. It is monumental in the gravity of its silence. Yet when the right moment hits, when the light suffuses it and ignites the strip of fountain, the structure comes alive in a transcendent event that speaks volumes to those present to witness, volumes that must remain in the realm of the unspeakable.

End Notes

1 Vincent Scully, “Works of Louis Kahn and his Method”, Louis I. Kahn, (Tokyo, Japan: Architecture and Urbanism, 1975) 288.

2 Qtd in Ezra Stoller, The Salk Institute, (New York, NY: 1999), 2.

3 Jonas Salk, “A Proposed Institute: A Statement [in connection with consideration by San Diego City Council of proposal to make land available…],” typed manuscript, March 15, 1960.

4 Unfortunately, as a result of one of the world’s many architectural travesties, the quad is now closed on all four sides on account of the construction of a new building, blocking Jefferson’s intended view of the landscape.

5 Stoller, 6.

6 Louis I. Kahn, “I Love Beginnings,” Louis I. Kahn. (Tokyo, Japan: Architecture and Urbanism, 1975) 279.

7 Qtd in Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, (New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1966) 50.

8 Louis I. Kahn. “Architecture is the Thoughtful Making of Spaces”, (1957) 272.

9 Ravi Kalia, Gandhinagar: Building National Identity in Postcolonial India, (U of South Carolina Press, 2004) 77.

10 Tyng 265.

11 Alexandra Tyng, “Silence in Light”, Louis I. Kahn: l’uomo, il maestro. (Rome, Italy: Edizionie Kappa, 1986) 271.

12 Gideon Rappaport, “While Standing on One Leg”, 8 Nov. 2009,


Kahn, Louis I. “Order in Architecture,” 1957.

Kahn, Louis I. “Architecture Is the Thoughtful Making of Spaces,” 1957.

Kahn, Louis I. “Monumentality,” 1944.

Kalia, Ravi, Gandhinagar: Bulding National Identity in Postcolonial India. University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Louis I. Kahn. Tokyo, Japan: Architecture and Urbanism, 1975.

Ed., Latour, Alessandra, Louis I. Kahn: l’uomo, il maestro. Rome, Italy: Edizionie Kappa, 1986.

Giurgola, Romaldo., Mehta, Jaimini. Louis I. Kahn. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1976.

Maki, Fumihiko., ed. Futagawa, Yukio. Louis I. Kahn: Richards Medical Research Building, Pennsylvania. 1961 and Salk Institute for Biological Studies, California, 1965. Tokyo, Japan: A.D.A EDITA Tokyo Co., 1971.

Stoller, Ezra. The Salk Institute. Friedman, D.S., “Introduction”, New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.

Tyng, Alexandra. “Form, Order, Design: The Inspiration Process”, Beginnings: Louis I. Kahn’s Philosophy of Architecture. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1984.

Venturi, Robert. Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. New York, NY: Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

3 replies »

  1. Inspirational essay on inspirational architecture. Having been a tour guide of the Salk's architecture for only 2 years,I appreciate those who can convey the unmeasurable and unspeakable qualities that Kahn's masterpience evokes.


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