James Finestone marvels at the scientific wonder that is the Salk Institute in California, but sees the Essex new town of Harlow as an experiment that went badly wrong

As my wonder, I have chosen a building to contrast with the obsession with surface and shapemaking that has infected the architectural community over the past decade. The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla outside San Diego was completed in 1967 and has stood the test of time functionally, materially and emotionally.

Louis Kahn’s clear design strategy, rigorous planning and use of self-finished, robust, long-lasting materials, notably concrete, teak and travertine, meant that the building was designed to change. Yet it elicits the same timeless emotional response today as it did 42 years ago. Walking in the shaded cloister by the open courtyard is an inspiring reminder that buildings need to be designed to last.

My blunder is Harlow. It was conceived in 1947, in the spirit of post-war optimism, by Sir Frederick Gibberd and was one of many new towns supposed to ease the pressures on London.

It had ambition and has been successful in many ways, but the town centre shopping precinct is awful. It has aged very badly and has been modified over successive decades without vision.

It is now a sea of drab, faded, split concrete and mainly a monoculture of shopping. The mix of uses and the density just feels so wrong.

But all is about to change with the 1.3 million ft2 Harlow Town Centre North regeneration scheme, I hear. Hopefully it will be for the better.

Harlow is a very important centre of scientific research in the UK, yet the town has no building comparable to the Salk Institute. I would love to change that.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, California


The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, California, was designed by Louis Kahn’s architecture practice under supervising architect Michael Duff, and built in 1962. Collaborating with Kahn, Mexican architect Luis Barragan said the central space should remain a civic plaza rather than a garden, and that it should be left without any planting whatsoever.

Harlow town centre


Harlow town centre is notable for having the UK’s first pedestrian precinct. Designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd at about the same time as other “new towns”, the development combined Old Harlow and several surrounding villages. The town is divided into neighborhoods, each with their own facilities. Work on a £9.3m university campus will begin in summer 2010.

James Finestone is director of Flacq Architects.