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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18 thoughts on “The Power of Architecture – Louis Kahn

    1. Thank you so much, Darren! The subject of light is endless and encompassing so many disciplines, a feast for the eyes, always…


  1. Love this post Ingrid. And I love the idea that the synergy between science, art and architecture can combine to create something rather extraordinary. I read somewhere that Salk wanted to design a facility that Picasso would want to visit. I think with Kahn he achieved that! I visited CERN with the kids last week, and got a sense of the serious research which you talked about, but which is played out in an everyday, accessible way. I smiled when I read your reference to the surfboard stacked up against the wall. I took a photo of the building which houses the Large Hadron Collider and it’s Atlas Detector, where thousands of scientists work to try and discover what happened during the Big Bang, locating the particles which will help explain where we come from, and there leaning against the side is a single pushbike! And so lies another synergy, the ability to combine the laid-back and the genius!
    PS Great pics!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Lex, I am so glad you enjoyed the post on Salk Institute and Louis Kahn. It is an amazing place, very photogenic and around the corner for me! I found the mix of art, science and real life so refreshing… the simple fact it’s available for people to experience, even if you don’t belong to the campus. Visiting the CERN must have been on a totally different scale! I would live to see it one day. You also read right, the idea was to make it as much science as art so that Picasso would visit. It almost got there in a roundabout way since Francoise Gilot (muse and mother to two children with Picasso, Paloma being one of them) came and fell in love with … Jonas Salk! It’s on my list of follow up posts as Francoise Gilot was also an artist in her own right…I am reading a book about her, very interesting 😉 So stay tuned or sign up for the email delivery if you prefer 😉


      1. How funny, I watched a short interview with Françoise Gilot recently, a formidable woman and still so elegant and eloquent at 95 years old. Her paintings are wonderful and apparently she’s trying to buy back at auction as many of her works as she can. I’m excited to read your post! A great choice of subject. We have the photo of her with Picasso under the parasol on our ‘atelier’ wall 😘

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    1. Hi there, I would love to help you as best I can…feel free to contact me maybe via the contact form to give me more details. All the best

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! The Salk Institute is indeed a stunning building, I always find peace whenever I run to it. All of his other buildings are on my bucket list. Which one have you seen? What did you feel?

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      1. Unfortunately I’ve only ‘visited’ his buildings through lectures and reading books, I think that’s why I loved your post – it gave a different angle to my understanding of the building.

        By the way, you might want to check out a piece I wrote last week:

        It’s about the work of Paulo David, I pick up the same subtle beauty in his work as I do in Kahn’s. I’m going to publish a more detailed study of his best building, the Casa das Mudas (hopefully later this week).
        JB /

        Liked by 1 person

      2. JB, I have just read it and absolutely loved it. I want to go check it out! Paulo David’s approach reminded me of another place I think you will love: Naoshima in Japan! I have recently been and will post about it in the next few weeks. You will love it! (Also, briefly saw your Three Long Journeys post…I feel my Hokusai’s Wave will seem like a small goal compared to your ultra trails but I have accomplished my mission last Sunday…Debrief post will cone soon too 😉 Too little time when your mind is overflowing!)

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I’m really pleased you liked that post on Paulo David (I’m working on the detailed post on Casa das Mudas just now).

        And thanks for the heads up on those posts you’re working on – I’ll look forward to reading them!

        Liked by 1 person

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