landscaping without plants


From my desk at work it’s less than a fifteen minute stroll to this viewpoint, which has got to be one of the most famous places to stand in all of modern architecture.

The view is of the central plaza of the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, which architect Louis Kahn designed for his client, polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk. The plaza features this simple water feature that pulls your eye towards the water, 400 feet below, and to the horizon and the sky. The materials of the plaza are reduced down to water, travertine marble and the angled concrete walls of the research buildings.

No plants. When Kahn was working on the design he’d had a conversation with Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Kenneth Frampton recounts Barragán’s seminal response in Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture:

“I would not put a tree or blade of grass in this space. This should be a plaza of stone, not a garden.” I [Kahn] looked at Dr. Salk and he at me and we both felt this was deeply right. Feeling our approval, he added joyously, “If you make this a plaza, you will gain a facade–a facade to the sky.”

As much as I love plants, I have to agree that this was the right decision. There’s an unphotographably joyous experience of pure space that settles into your mind as you stand or sit to contemplate the view.


If you can pull your eyes off the horizon–not an easy thing to do–you start to notice, however, that plants do figure in the plaza’s final realization. Immediately to the east are some steps, and planting beds on either side of the steps. As with a lot of modern planting design, the planters feature one kind of plant and one kind only. Considering the planting design was executed many years ago, probably in the late 1960s or early 1970s, long before the current focus on edible landscaping, it’s surprising that the plant of choice was orange trees, at least four dozen of them. (Maybe it has something to do with the environmental ethic that was developing while the Salk was being designed, an ethic that we’re finally rediscovering today.)

Below is a 360-degree panorama from the top of the steps. Just imagine walking west towards the horizon, at dusk, on a calm evening, as the orange trees begin to flower and scent the air.


15 thoughts on “landscaping without plants”

  1. Thanks for showing this. It’s beautiful, and I’d never have seen it otherwise. I’d call it a garden even with no plants. (Though I’m generally wary of architects designing gardens.) Have you seen Tim Richardson’s book on conceptual gardens, Avant Garderers?

  2. I must say that though this is the right decision for the architect and designer. I’m not liking it. We all need green in our lives, not just stone and the token water. It just feels cold and sterile. Seems more like Greece than California.

  3. James, for gardeners who approach a site with its spatial qualities foremost in mind, I think the Salk will make sense. I find the space deeply affecting. Funny that you mention Avant Gardeners–I’ve been dipping in and out of the book for the last several months as bedside reading. There’s some fine work in there, along with some projects that seem to stall at the concept. But I do appreciate a little provocation, and the book does that well.

    Tina, your comment about Greece is very interesting. The architect was greatly influenced by some of the monumental architecture he encountered in Southern Europe. Where this building sits, on a bluff high over the Pacific, the site reminds me a lot of what I think coastal Greece would look like (not having ever been there).

  4. At first, I confess I was a bit dubious at this idea of no plants, as arresting as the framed vista may be.

    Its funny how quickly I came ’round to it, though, once you assured me that plants do indeed have their impact on the site and its experience.

    1. Giving a fair approximation of the experience is tough–something like trying to photograph fragrance. But the place exceeds most people’s expectations…

  5. LOL, I like it myself although, to be honest, some green or at least something organic would be cool. Imagine some kinky designer with “blues” in mind, for example. What it does do is focus, as you say, on the sky like some invitation. It is therefore evocative, at the very worst. Isn’t that what art is all about?

  6. Interesting that your photograph of the “garden” seems to be so controversial. The central rill recalls Islamic gardens, and even the pre-Islamic paradise garden. I actually dislike many of the plantless conceptual gardens in Avant Garderens, but I think Kahn’s design is beautiful in it’s purity and simplicity.

  7. As always, I’m refreshed, and at the same time, provoked by your post.
    Every type of garden interests me, and that includes a space such as this one.
    Your eye is keen, and your mind aware, James. Thank you.

  8. Woooo, controversy! Gardens nest in different places between human logic, emotion and nature, and this space definitely roosts closest to the logical tip of the triangle (as do the Islamic gardens that James mentions). It probably won’t appeal nearly as much to someone whose ideal garden pulls closest to nature and emotion. I guess I’m pretty omnivorous (or undecided?). I love this space, but I also love examples of spaces that soothe or seduce.

  9. FYI, I’ve been tweeting on TWITTER about this post (and I messaged Noel, too.)
    I’m finding this dialogue refreshing, so I’m taking it upon myself want to enlighten the ‘tweeples’ – garden designers/writers/et all/ about Lost in the Landscape.
    Let’s see if they join the fray!

  10. At Alice’s recommendation, I’m visiting. What do I think? I think the world would be very boring if we all had the same idea of what constitutes beauty. That being said, I don’t find it beautiful. The first thing I thought of was how HOT it would be, the sun radiating off of concrete, granite, marble or whatever. Plants offer shade and shadow that is sorely lacking. But this is just my opinion. Art is highly subjective.

  11. In my experience, architects are most interested in buildings, and the plantings at famous buildings often look like an afterthought. This place looks beautiful.

    1. Considering how rambunctious the plant the plant was during the wet season, I’d guess that there’s plenty of nitrogen for a five foot radius!

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