On the first day at his new elementary school, Louis Kahn burrowed his face into his scarf and hurried past the other children. They must think I’m hideous, he thought, as he ran his fingers over the jagged scars that had disfigured his appearance since he was 3 years old. Always fascinated by light, the precocious toddler—who would become a world famous architect—had reached into a fireplace for a burning coal and set himself on fire. That accident not only changed his appearance, but also transformed his personality.
Like Moshe, who according to tradition scorched his tongue on a burning coal when he was an infant, Louis developed a profound sense of humility. The most extraordinary expression of his unassuming nature is found in his masterful design of the Jonas Salk Institute for Biological Studies, a scientific community with laboratories and residences built on the coastline in La Jolla, California (see photo). Louis understood that scientists who research cures for diseases are not interested in personal glory. Instead, they work tirelessly to pursue something greater than themselves. He integrated this idea into every inch of the Salk Institute, but it’s especially visible in the simplicity of the plaza, where a tiny stream of water empties into the incalculable vastness of the ocean. This vista awakens a sense of balance in scientists at the institute, reminding them that their human feats of genius pale in comparison to the grandeur of God’s creation.
Louis I. Kahn has been hailed as one of the most original and important architects of the 20th century.