Monday, May 10, 2010


What is it that makes certain buildings and places so evocative and powerful? It's not so much the style and scale of new structures as how the new structures fit into the context-defined "anchor points" on a site, remain open to urban open space and view corridors, and address existing significant structures and public gardens, etc. that provide the whole site context.

In "plannerspeak" that means to maintain the edges and connections that exist, but perhaps even reinforce them with a startling new form that sees what's there in a way that nobody saw before. Renzo Piano and Steven Holl can do it with entirely new vocabularies (that they've spent decades refining), it's not magic. FLLW did it - in his own inimitable style - with the Fallingwater design after about 3 hours' notice by the client that he was on the way (after studying the site in detail for months, every tree! - context is supreme again)

It's NOT about copying previous examples of style/form/scale, which most folks misunderstand. It's about using some kind of consistent vocabulary in a way that makes it a place you want to be in and inhabit, and express its intent and program clearly.

What most architects understand is that the key to a place is its focus and expression, just as in the remarkable Salk Institute by Louis Kahn in La Jolla. This place is stunning, yet pragmatic. It is designed for expansion (currently underway). But its siting, with that runnel that heads out to sea and is centered on the Summer Solstice sunset, goes far beyond the mundane with a Vision Statement that embodies a key representation of historic scientific innovation & research. The angle of the sun, the line out to sea, create a triangular structure of space out to an infinite horizon that speaks to the euclidean understanding of geometry and science. All the labs and offices are angled along this plaza towards the same view. You see how this works?

That's the driving Vision.

The deeper inspiration in the case of the building for this institute for Salk is that it emerged from his experience of a monastery in Assisi as he was trying to reach for the clarifying insight that resulted in production of the polio vaccine. All of these elements come together in an incredible fusion by Kahn.

The details of the structure and site's programmatic solutions and materials, structure and systems emerge from this initial response. For example, twelve principal ingredients are outlined on this site, and are the things that must be quantified and laid out in order to complete the design. If these elements are consistently applied and fully carried out, it can result in a very successful experience. Sometimes even an iconic presence.