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Don't Block That View
Planned expansion lands Salk Institute on endangered list
Courtesy Salk Institute

On June 6, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla found itself on a list that no one wants to be on: the World Monuments Fund’s (WMF) annual inventory of the 100 most endangered cultural and architectural sites in the world. 

The institute, a research center housed in a worldfamous modernist complex designed in 1963 by Louis Kahn, is on the list, according to the fund’s announcement, “because of a planned construction project that would partially obscure its iconic view of the Pacific Ocean from its paved courtyard.” That project, a three-story building known as the Campus Community Center, located on the northwest mesa of the institute’s property, will include a library, meeting rooms, administrative offices, and a dining facility/faculty lounge. The fund says that the building “threatens to breach the 30- foot height limit along the coast” and that it is “clearly visible” from the Luis Barragan–designed courtyard that separates the institute’s two Kahn-designed concrete research buildings. 

The community center is part of an update to the 1962 masterplan. Developed by NBBJ last year, the updated plan will help accommodate a research staff that has almost quadrupled since the Salk’s founding. The plan still needs funding and city approval. It also includes a new laboratory building to the east of the main complex and a support center for researchers and their families to the southwest. In a report, WMF officials note that these plans have been criticized because the support center includes a “fitness and day care center… uses never intended by Kahn,” while the science center is a “big box” building “obscuring the public’s view of the Kahn building from Torrey Pines Road.” 

In a statement, the institute called the WMF’s claim that the new development would damage the view of the Pacific Ocean from the courtyard “grossly erroneous and irresponsible.” The statement added, “The original masterplan created by Jonas Salk and Louis Kahn included future development west of the courtyard and throughout the site.” Salk’s director of communications Mauricio Minotta said that the institute conducted computer simulations and ground surveys to confirm that the view wouldn’t be impacted. 

“From the image that we’ve seen, we feel it does look like it intrudes on the site,” said Henry Ng, the WMF’s executive vice president. “It is the land and the siting that are integral to the genius of this design.” Ng added that the National Trust for Historic Preservation recently reported to the City of San Diego that the plans would intrude on the view. Local preservation groups, such as the Friends of Salk Coastal Canyon and Coalition to Save the Salk, have agreed and have pointed out that the new buildings will disturb the habitat and landscape of one of the state’s last undisturbed coastal canyons. 

As for the other two new buildings, Minotta noted that the future laboratories will have a glass atrium in their center to allow views to the original building, while the support center is a necessary element for families. “They always wanted residential space for visiting scientists. They couldn’t predict there would be families with children who would need to put families in day care,” he said. 

Sam Lubell, Allison Milionis, Yosh Asato