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Salk It to Me

We put the lens on the Salk’s Institute’s visionary leader.

Tom Albright at the Louis I. Kahn-designed Salk Institute. “San Diego is the center of the universe when it comes to neuroscience,” he says.

All the world’s a laboratory for the curious and creative Tom Albright. This brainy neuroscientist directs the Salk Institute’s Vision Center Laboratory and is the just-named president of one of the hottest collaborations going: the Academy of Neuroscience in Architecture. “Architects have always designed buildings for our well-being, but now we have an objective tool,” says Albright. Artists like David Hockney and Robert Irwin seek him out to swap tools of the visual trade. But architects, watch out! He calls bad design when he sees it: “I walk into rooms sometimes and wonder, ‘What were they thinking?’”

Is the Salk Institute’s architecture overrated? I don’t think it’s overrated at all. When I saw crumbling Greek temples overlooking the sea, all I could think of was a thousand years from now Kahn’s buildings will still be here.

What’s it like to work there every day? It’s fantastic. I especially like the authenticity of the original concrete lab buildings.

A not-so-shining moment? They installed Dale Chihuly’s large glass sculptures in the courtyard a few years ago. Although his work is beautiful and I loved the pieces, I found it a bit jarring. The glass didn’t really mesh with the austere courtyard.

Other fave S.D. buildings? I have always loved the Unitarian Church and the train station in Solana Beach, both designed by Rob Quigley. I’m a big fan of his industrial aesthetic.

How does architecture challenge the eye and brain? Architecture is so multidimensional. We’re much better at, say, reading faces; we quickly respond to a wild animal threat or a person’s mood.

Vision and synesthesia? I’ve been told I have a very special form of synesthesia: I have an oval-shaped [mental] map that I can readily visualize that represents the days of the week: Saturday is white, Sunday is yellow, Monday is blue, etcetera. Functionally, it’s a very handy thing to have.

Latest journal article? An essay in the January issue of Leonardo about the sensory tricks I experienced when I visited a chapel in Naples to see a celebrated, life-size marble sculpture of the shrouded body of Jesus. It’s an extraordinary piece of art and one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen.

Reading for pleasure? This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Ideal S.D. weekend? I love the solitude of the Carrizo Badlands in Anza-Borrego. I have hiked and camped there. The stars are magical and humbling.

Surprise us... One of my favorite things to do is to stand with my son under the Lindbergh Field flight path at the corner of Laurel and Pacific Highway. There’s nothing like a 50-ton machine roaring by 100 feet above your head.