It’s hard to believe that the Salk Institute is nearly a half-century old. Louis Kahn’s masterpiece, perched on Pacific bluffs in La Jolla, Calif., has always had a conflicted relationship with time. Critic Esther McCoy, in a 1967 issue of Architectural Forum, wrote that “Kahn has said that he builds for today, not the future, but Dr. [Jonas] Salk maintains that in the laboratory building the future was built into today.”
The Salk Institute might be enduring in its design. But even icons age. Today, the landmark needs significant work on its concrete and glass façade, as well a plan for maintaining the limestone courtyard. Kahn couldn’t have predicted that fungus spores would drift on marine air from nearby eucalyptus trees and take root on the building, discoloring and eroding the teak window screens.
Which is why the Salk teamed up with the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) to develop a long-term preservation strategy for the site. Based on a condition survey, historical research at the Kahn archives in Philadelphia, DNA testing, and surface treatment analysis on the building’s façade, CGI came up with a conservation methodology. The Salk Institute Conservation Project, as it’s called, is a model field study within the Getty’s Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative (CMAI).
CMAI’s goal is both ambitious and far-reaching: to ensure the survival of our modernist heritage, both here and abroad. In addition to model field projects, the initiative hosts professional training programs for conservators and architects, conducts scientific research on materials-based conservation, stages public lectures and workshops, and will eventually publish a series of books and periodicals.
The need has never been greater. According to CMAI project director Susan Macdonald, the typical life cycle of a traditional building—those made out of brick, stone, and timber—is 60 years before the first minor repair (restoring interior finishes, for instance), and 120 years for the first major repair (such as fixing damage to structural members). Modernist structures, by contrast, have an accelerated cycle—twice as fast, according to Macdonald. Which means that as many postwar buildings have started needing major work, they haven’t had conservation plans in place. “By the time we got to the 2000s, these buildings from the ’50s and ’60s were up for their first major repair,” Macdonald says. “Right now a lot of these buildings are at the moment in their life cycle where they need attention and repair. And we’re having trouble knowing how to conserve them.”
As a key first step, this spring the Getty announced the launch of HistoricPlacesLA.org, an online inventory and map of notable sites that was developed over a decade in partnership with the city of Los Angeles. It includes pre-1900 architecture in addition to modernist landmarks, historic districts and sites of cultural or social importance, and even features infrastructure: bridges, parks, and streetscapes.
GCI is not an advocacy group. Macdonald considers the survey of 880,000 parcels of land for the website project a critical first step in identifying the city’s heritage. But as for lobbying and public awareness, CGI will leave that to organizations such as Docomomo International, the nonprofit watchdog for the worldwide preservation of modern architecture, or the Los Angeles Conservancy, one of the oldest nonprofits protecting 20th-century architecture.
Still, by advancing the knowledge of how to preserve modernist buildings, CMAI may be able to sway debates about at-risk sites. As we’ve recently seen with Brutalist architecture—consider Paul Rudolph’s threatened concrete-and-glass Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y., or John Johansen’s demolished 1967 Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore—a building’s neglected condition is often used as justification for razing and redevelopment. When the fate of the Mechanic was still uncertain, Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership in Baltimore, underscored the preservation challenges and offered them as reasons for demolition. The theater, he wrote in a statement to ARCHITECT magazine in 2012, is “an obsolete and failing structure that has been a blight on the community.”
Modernist buildings do pose some particularly daunting challenges. That era witnessed an expanded range of building typologies—schools, universities, hospitals, industrial buildings, health centers—which were designed for very specific uses. But as those initial purposes become defunct, buildings owners are left with the task of adapting a particular design to a new program. Which is when that old adage—form follows function—becomes more of a curse than a blessing.
Central among CMAI’s goals is to develop a holistic approach to maintaining the architectural integrity of buildings in the face of deteriorating materials. In 2013, the Getty hosted “A Colloquium to Advance the Practice of Conserving Modern Architecture,” bringing together 60 experts, including Docomomo International president Ana Tostões, and Sheridan Burke, president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which drafted some of the first widely adopted conservation guidelines, the 1964 Venice Charter. Physical conservation, a major theme at the colloquium, inspired a realization of how significant the challenges are with materials. “At the end, we came out and said we’ve got real problems with concrete. We’ve got real problems with modern metals. We’ve got problems with plastics, with curtainwalls and glass,” recalls Macdonald.
Concrete, Macdonald’s area of interest, is the first material that GCI is studying comprehensively. Not only is it the ubiquitous building material of the modernist era; it is also one of the most difficult to conserve. Problems include spalling due to freeze–thaw cycles, cracking, and exposed rebar. “Concrete was completely widespread and used en masse pretty much everywhere, particularly in the postwar era,” Macdonald says. “It’s got a lot of challenges, because even though it’s a multimillion-dollar repair industry, none of it is particularly targeted well towards conservation. When you think about the exposed concrete buildings like Salk or any of the Brutalist ones, once you start to repair the concrete, the only techniques that are available and work properly now wreck the look of the building.”
CMAI researchers are developing a variety of solutions, from basic guidelines for how to properly patch a concrete façade, to experimental solutions, such as testing how hydrophobic coatings might help protect exposed concrete.
One of the essential tenets of Modernism—experimenting with new materials—has created another unexpected challenge, as many newfangled polymers and plastics haven’t aged well. Technologically avant building systems have failed to guard against deteriorating sealants, crumbling foam, or discoloring fiberglass. Moreover, mass-produced and machined components present philosophical questions about authenticity, temporality, and reconstruction. In a position paper presented at the Getty’s 2013 colloquium, GCI project manager Kyle Normandin put it this way: “Are standardized, machined building components understood to have the same significance as traditional carved-stone elements on a building façade, which are the work of a craftsperson?”
For Frank Escher and Ravi GuneWardena of the Los Angeles–based practice Escher GuneWardena Architecture, the answer is clearly yes. The project architects for the initial phase of the work on the Eames House Conservation Project, their wide-ranging practice encompasses everything from contemporary art to working on classic houses by L.A. masters like John Lautner and Quincy A. Jones. (The Eames House was the first of CMAI’s field projects; the Salk Institute is its second.)
The firm’s investigations in art informed its work on the 1949 landmark, which Charles and Ray Eames designed for themselves in Pacific Palisades, Calif. Escher GuneWardena approached the conservation of the residence like the restoration of a painting: meticulous in the effort not to erase history. “All of the traces that we discovered in the Eames House during early investigations—the cracks in painted surfaces, mechanical abrasions on the wood, or discolorations or stains in the wood—these to us were something that we felt was absolutely necessary to preserve,” says Escher. “They are part of the building’s history and create a very particular atmosphere. We have always felt—and this began before the Eames House—that if you can tell that a building has been restored, you have gone too far.”
At the Salk Institute, the teak window walls are themselves a kind of modern craft. Conceptually, they’re critical to Kahn’s idea of providing individual studies—almost monastic cells—to the institute’s science fellows. The wood studies were meant as a domestic contrast to the lab. As Esther McCoy writes in her 1967 Architectural Forum article: “[Kahn called] one the architecture of the oak table and the rug, and the other the architecture of the pipes.”
These studies offer a warm juxtaposition to the cast-concrete walls and the travertine plaza. Weathering of the wall assemblies due to a fungal biofilm from the nearby eucalyptus trees, and decades of trying various surface treatments to remove it, prompted the first phase of CMAI’s field study. The team conducted archival research to understand Kahn’s intent behind his design of a place that brings together science and the humanities, to figure out what changes had been made to the design during the construction phase, and to document the early history of maintenance and repair.
Preliminary assessments included taking samples of the window walls, which confirmed them as Burmese teak. Additionally, GCI’s organic materials laboratory sent the fungus out for DNA analysis. Workers also conducted a number of investigations into the window wall assembly itself, opening up the framing and discovering that the local millworker had used standard studs and plywood inside in addition to the teak. Then they set about creating a series of on-site mock-ups to test various repair strategies. An ongoing project, the mock-ups are left exposed to the coastal climate and are used to model weatherproofing, surface treatments, and replacement techniques.
It’s not your average retrofit. But this methodical approach, rooted in scientific and historical research, will help ensure that the Salk Institute thrives for the next half-century. And, if CMAI is successful, the research will help revive buildings whose future is far less certain.