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The Power of Architecture – Louis Kahn

With a pervasive laid-back attitude, it would be easy to stamp San Diego –wrongly, in my opinion – as provincial compared to Los Angeles, its buzzing but gridlocked neighbour. Yes, Los Angeles hosts some high profile museums but if you care to look, not just see, then San Diego has much to offer. San Diego just tends to be understated – a word I have come to think about a lot more since I moved to La Jolla 6 years ago.

“Understated” popped in my head again while visiting The Power of Architecture exhibition this week.

What is it about Modernist architect Louis Kahn that makes his work so understated – even underrated compared to Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright – despite the fact that experiencing it is quite monumental?


Take his architectural masterpiece, the Salk Institute, tucked away in La Jolla since 1965. You hear about it – a bit – if you live in San Diego but it’s really a gem hidden from the street. Granted, it is in keeping with Kahn’s concept of an “intellectual retreat” but seek it out, it’s worth it!


There is some serious neuroscience research going on at the Salk Institute. I pray these scientists discover something to derail Alzheimer’s and ALS amongst other neurological diseases. Yet during my last visit, what made me smile was a surfboard casually left drying on the balcony facing lab cells with floor-to-ceiling glass panes. Serious science, San Diego-style! The full transparency of glass means visitors can peek into lab after lab, witnessing who’s got an untidy desk or not (sorry, who’s creative or not!).

But let’s not spy for too long on such understated genius hard at work…Kahn’s “retreat” part of the equation comes from experiencing the buildings from the outside, open to the public during weekdays.



You don’t need to be versed in architectural concepts to feel suddenly grounded and calmed by how Kahn designed using Space and Light, much in keeping with what came out of the LA art scene in the 1960-70’s.


His treatment of light was revolutionary in that he carefully analyzed how light refracts (bends), reflects (bounces off) and gets diffused (or scattered across a larger area for a softer effect). Witness the optimized quality of natural light penetrating the carefully set-back spaces at the Salk Institute and you might as well be meeting me on my grid at the surprising intersection between Architecture, Art and Gemology for which these concepts of optics are fundamental.


Kahn also designed with what he called interstitial spaces, or spaces in between “served” (the labs) and “servant” (utility rooms) areas. The clear separation between the two made sure creativity was never going to be disturbed by any required maintenance.


Combined visually with the perfect symmetry of the buildings centered on an axis of flowing water and the view of the ocean as vanishing point, body and mind can’t deny the meditative quality of these many “spaces in between”. I suddenly caught myself correcting my posture to stand straight. And Salk Institute became the perfect spot for a yoga balancing pose which your quieter mind could hold for a very long time. As you can see, even the kids briefly felt the bliss of the liminal state (space in between two thoughts) – and then started racing around!



Exploring Kahn’s other buildings is very rewarding and an easy way is to watch the movie My Architect – A Son’s Journey. You’ll get to see how Louis Kahn’s made sure the 250,000 books in the Phillips Exeter Academy Library (New Hampshire) be protected from direct sunlight without sacrificing natural light inside. Or the National Assembly in Bangladesh which can’t leave you indifferent. I certainly hope I get to experience it one day…


Louis Kahn is the subject of a beautiful retrospective called The Power of Architecture currently showing at the San Diego Museum of Art until January 31, 2017.

If you can’t make it, the scaffoldings due to renovation should come down in May 2017, so make a plan to go stand in the space in between at the Salk Institute and remember the name Louis Kahn.


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© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

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