Tour the Salk with Ellen

By Aaron Britt / Published by Dwell
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This past Friday I was down in San Diego touring the city with architect Aaron Anderson of Studio Anderson. No modernist worth his salt would consider leaving San Diego without a visit to Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute in La Jolla, and, as I quickly gathered, no serious Salk fan would consider touring the building without Ellen.

She gives free public tours on Fridays, offers private tours on Saturdays, and has an abiding passion for the architecture, for Kahn, and for the research done at the Salk Center. What’s more, she’s bossy, funny, opinionated, and is ultimately less interested in passing on her views about the building’s structure than its soul. Though fluent in composition, concrete, and geometry, Ellen argues as strongly for Kahn the mystic as Kahn the architect.

Perhaps the best moment came when she took Anderson and I down a level, off of the main courtyard—Kahn’s "façade to the sky"—to look up at the stairwells, elevators, gutters, and overhangs. The blocky, pocked concrete was pure form, and as Ellen put it, "the best abstract painting that you’ll ever see." She continued with one of her favorite anecdotes about her days as a tour guide:

Some time back she was giving a private tour to Japanese architect Tadao Ando and his interpreter. Ellen took him down to see her "abstract painting" and Ando looked up in utter reverence, and declared in English, "I am renewed." Unflinching at the architect’s sense of awe, she retorted, "All this while you’re using a translator and now you come out with ‘I am renewed’? I know Americans who can’t speak like that!"

To arrange a tour of the Salk go to this website or call (858) 453-4100, ext 1287. Ask for Ellen.

Aaron Britt


Aaron writes the men's style column "The Pocket Square" for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written for the New York Times, the Times Magazine, Newsweek, National Geographic and others.

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