Jim Olson: Framing the Salk Institute

For the next two weeks, A+A will feature guest posts by some of this nation’s finest architects, curators and designers. We made a simple request of each: Give us 300 words about your favorite building and its architect, and why both are important. Today, we embark on that journey with Jim Olson, Louis Kahn and the Salk Institute. Could there possibly be a more thought-provoking triumvirate?

By Jim Olson, Olson Kundig Architects

The Salk Institute by Louis Kahn embodies so many of the things that I believe in as an architect – especially the way that buildings can frame nature. The whole point with the Salk Institute is to frame and focus on the ocean. To me, the building takes on a powerful spiritual role. It channels everyday life into an awareness of planet and sky. It’s also about an elemental use of materials like raw concrete and wood.

I discovered the Salk Institute early in my career. The building was new at the time, and I was just out of college. The timeless quality of it has continued to speak to me over the years, as much as the other seminal places that have influenced me as an architect: the Temple at Karnak, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and the design of Japanese gardens. The latest, coolest, hippest thing doesn’t do what these timeless places do.

Our practice has always been about what places like the Salk Institute are about: an elemental relationship to nature, classic proportions, and natural daylight. My project at Bellevue Botanical Gardens will be like that: large openings framing lush gardens. It’s a simple building that plays off of nature.

From Hong Kong Villa to Ocean House and Earth House, the Salk Institute continues to influence my work today. Its relationship with the ocean especially impacted my design of Cabo House where the building appears to meet the horizon. A new 300-room hotel in Puerto Los Cabos, Mexico, will follow this inspiration when it opens next year. Over and over again you see the water and sky framed—the design evokes the perception of being very close to the water—so close that the pools seem to melt into the ocean and visually draw the magic of the ocean right to where you stand.

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Photo of Salk Institute: Jim Harper (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Photo of Jim Olson: Kyle Johnson