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IDEAS / architecture

Salk Institute. Concrete Theatre

11 May 2018

words:  Natalie Donat-Cattin

photos:  Jian Yong Khoo

Buildings by nature seek to dominate space. At the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the experience is wholly different – in this isolated picturesque setting: space dominates building.

At first sight, the architecture appears anonymous, sculptural and silent. Lost along the Californian coast, it is situated a stone’s throw away from San Diego in La Jolla. We can imagine it as an untouched gem in a post war scenario: a living ruin, capable of projecting worlds of its own. The fact that its primary function is a laboratory is rendered irrelevant – the real beauty of the architecture lies in its ability to transcend its programme to become a timeless space. It is not conceptually distant from the plaster edifices of Hollywood and Cinecittà. In this concrete theatre we become puppets in the middle of a brushed brutality: elegant in its hardness and poetic in its staging.

It is a joy mixed with melancholy (beauty often has this double effect) which pervades us as we venture onto the large square – the core of the complex. The expansive horizontal surface becomes a travertine nave, where a stream of water catches our attention. Trapped in its rigid linear form, it slices the space into two, giving it strength and directionality, almost in an attempt of showing us the way to the apsides.

The sea and the sky await us at the end of this visual journey. Here, we feel the need to abandon ourselves to the bucolic landscape, eager to embrace the horizon, the only altar to which we devote ourselves. Immersed in nature we forget architecture, which becomes merely a framing tool.

As a result of this spiritual promenade, we strive to cling onto tangible elements. While approaching the buildings, they begin to gain consistency, no longer as sculptures, but as refined objects with their own materiality. The concrete conveys a certain attention to detail in line with Louis Kahn’s ideology. The formwork panels are separated by a think gap which allows the fluid material to escape thus resulting in the visible joint. The result is a rectangular composition giving rhythm and tactility to the facade.

Ultimately, these details remain secondary in a space where the goal is to seduce and intoxicate, provoking the visitor to question it and in turn understand it. It is a void in which endless mental connections come to life. As Kahn would say, it is a space governed only by ‘silence and light’.

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architasters / project by Natalie Donat-Cattin and Jian Yong Khoo. It is a platform for speculation and discussion, functioning as a complementary repository for their design work.