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The Salk: a geometrical analysis supported by historical evidence

posted on 2023-05-22, 15:53 authored by Fleming, S, Reynolds, MA

This is the second in a series of publications to marry the disciplines of geometrical analysis and architectural history, in order to present a holistic picture of geometry in Kahn's work and thinking; our earlier research analyzed Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (Fleming and Reynolds 2006). The publications are motivated by two overarching discontents: first, our discontent with geometrical analysis that pays no attention to historical documents that might suggest that propmtions, no matter how accurate, are merely coincidental; second, our discontent with scholarship that would take an architect's silence on the topic of geometry as proof that no geometrical analysis of that architect's work is worth pursuing. Kahn said little to suggest an interest in the geometry that is buried everywhere in his work, making him the perfect subject for what we call historicgeometrical analysis.

In contrast to our earlier chapter, here we ruminate with relative liberty upon the possible meaning of the Salk's proportions. Of course, we are mindful of the arbitrary bond between signifiers and signified concepts, but we also believe that the present context provides a fitting occasion for this kind of speculation.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is a large building and much of the documentation for its construction was issued via addendums after work on site had commenced. We were therefore unable to defer to dimensions to confirm or refute all of our findings. Neither have we been able to arrange access to conduct in-situ measurements-though, in the case of the gardens shown in drawing LA4 ("Laboratory-middle level garden," dated 17 Jan. 1963), such measurements will remain an impossibility, as those gardens were never built. With less data at our disposal than we would have preferred, we were beholden to be especially accurate, thus we traced our analyses on high quality vellum, using only first generation copies, and we ensured our line weights matched Kahn's as well. For reasons of reprogaphics the illustrations shown here are small, redrawn versions of the actual analyses we used, and are therefore less accurate.

Our analysis was complicated by subtle complexities in the plan. Unlike Kahn's Kimbell Art Museum, which our earlier study found to be strictly regulated by a two-feet square grid, the Salk has many irregularities to belie the solemn aura of its famous plaza. Movable partitions mean interior ratios are elusive and variable, while the architect seems all too willing to abandon rhythms established along the length of a wing when end conditions dictate a change. In choosing what to measure, and what to ignore, we have been guided by Kahn's well known privileging of enduring elements, that is, those elements that are structural and therefore likely to outlive ephemeral fixtures when the Salk, in some mythical future, stands like the ruins that shaped Kahn's sensibility when he sketched them in Europe (Hochstim 1991). That is to say, we have measured the Salk's bones, not its flesh.


Publication title

Architecture and Mathematics from Antiquity to the Future. Volume II: The 1500s to the Future


K Williams, MJ Ostwald






School of Architecture and Design



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Copyright 2015 Springer International Publishing Switzerland

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