The Salk Institute

Something happened recently that I didn’t see coming … I visited a building that I had known about since college, seen a million and one pictures of the project, but truly didn’t appreciate until I walked the space and experienced the building.

Isn’t this what the power of architecture is all about? Visiting this project reaffirmed many things for me, number one on that list is that you need to visit these projects in person if you truly want to understand how they work.

Salk Institute visitor pass

There isn’t an architect on the planet that is unaware of the Salk Institute1, Louis Kahn’s 1965 masterpiece of brutalist architecture. I heard someone on my tour mention (and get it wrong) that this was a “brutalist” project because it was extreme in nature, ergo “brutal”. I need to set the record straight on this … Brutalist architecture, sometimes simply called “brutalism”, isn’t called this because it’s “brutal”. Originating from the French words for raw (brut) and concrete (béton), the term “Brutalism” was adapted by British architectural critic Reyner Banham2. Banham went on to say that brutalism was not a style, but rather the expression of an atmosphere among architects of the time reflecting “moral seriousness.”

I love that … moral seriousness, such an architectural thing to say.

At any rate, this is not a history post but rather a reflection on the power that architecture can have on a person and of a place. There are umpteen hundreds of books dedicated to the Salk Institute and the work of Louis Kahn (I’ve included just a few down at the bottom) so rather than regurgitate the work of others, I thought I would share some photos from my time at the Salk.

The Salk Institute - "The View"

Salk Institute - looking the other way

The material palette is incredibly refined and simple. Exposed concrete, travertine slabs, glass, and teak wood – all of which add their own level of texture and color on a micro scale, but work together extremely well to create a feeling of monolithic feeling at a macro scale.  The Salk has just completed a complete renovation of the teak wood panels and despite this building opening over 50 years ago, the entire place looks brand new.

The Salk Instituteq

There is a plaza centered between the two main structures (there are actually 5 main structures – they just look like 2) that is resplendent in a methodical arrangement of travertine slabs – we have Luis Barragán to thank that this plaza didn’t get filled with trees.

The Salk Institute

There is a narrow channel cut through the center of the plaza where water runs it’s length and then is collected into this water feature. While it is a lovely feature, “the life symbol of flowing water relates to the activities of the workers in this institution and is visually connected visually with the distant sea.3” I didn’t get that while I was on site, I just appreciated that it reinforced the symmetry of the two lab buildings and took on the role of visually orienting device that drove your line of sight beyond the plaza as framed by these two buildings, out to the horizon, creating a sense that there is something beyond, something much larger than the space you are currently occupying.

… but maybe that’s just me.

The Salk Institute

The Salk Institute - Looking Up

A closer look at the concrete stair towers with the teak wood panels.

Salk Institute exterior ring and labs 02

All of these windows look into the laboratories and from a design consideration, they are all held in place with screws so that they can be easily removed to allow for lab equipment to be moved in and out without and destructive work. It is a level of flexibility that allows these labs to evolve over time to accommodate things that didn’t (and don’t) currently exist.

Salk Institute exterior ring labs 01

There are doors exiting out of the labs onto a walkway that essentially laps the building … except as far as I could tell nobody uses them as there were desks and shelving in front of every single one of them.

Salk Institute exterior ring labs and exterior stairwells

Vertical circulation occurs outside the laboratory buildings in the sixteen stair towers (four per side per building) and they are the masses that generally define the Salk for what we all recognize.

Salk Institute exterior ring labs and exterior stairwells

An isolated look at one of the plaza-side stair towers.

Salk Institute scupper detail

As I was ignoring the docent who was leading my tour, I was down on my hands and knees looking at the lead scuppers that were cast into the concrete walkways connecting the stair towers to the laboratory building. Look how cool this thing is!! The fact that this wasn’t even mentioned by my docent told me that a) I didn’t need to listen anymore, and b) they should realize that the vast majority of the people who come to the Salk want to know about the architecture – particularly these sorts of details.

Salk Institute covered breezeway 02

A look down through the stair towers – an amazing play of light and shadows that was constantly changed during the 90 minutes I spent exploring the exterior.

The Salk Institute - base of the concrete stairwell

At the base of each stair tower is a concrete plane that is at a 45° angle to the towers themselves. (Ironically, as I was taking this picture, I heard my docent point out that “everything was built at right angles.” Really?)

Not to dogpile my docent, she is probably someone’s beloved grandmother, but she said loads of things that left me scratching my head. To her credit, I can’t think of anything more miserable than giving a tour of an architectural masterpiece, and all the people on that tour are know-it-all architects.


Nonetheless, while we were standing at the bottom of this stair tower, she asked us to feel the concrete. So I did … and it felt like concrete.

Docent: “Okay everyone, I want everyone to take a moment and feel the concrete.”

Bob: [feeling concrete]

Docent: “What do you feel?”

Bob [mumbling] “… I feel concrete.”

Docent: “It’s smooth, isn’t it.”

Bob: “Yeah, it’s pretty smooth.”

Docent: “That’s because Louis Kahn4 added ash to the concrete mix … to make it smooth.”

Wait. What?!? Fly ash has been added to concrete for 70+ years and as far as I know, it is the formwork that delivers a smooth surface, not the ash. Since I am me and I couldn’t leave this alone, I pulled out one of my Kahn books when I returned home and read that the ash was added to lighten the color of the concrete so that it more closely resembled the travertine. Furthermore, I went to the National Precast Concrete Association and did some additional research to see if I could find out whether the use of ash produces a smoother surface.  Nope – couldn’t find anything … but did confirm that one of the attributes of adding ash to concrete is to lighten the color.

The Salk Institute concrete stairs

Cast-in-place concrete stairs with travertine slabs as the tread and the nosing.

The Salk Institute concrete stairs

A look down the stair tower – it’s easy to see how the travertine tread sits atop the cast-in-place concrete stairs. The construction of the building is clearly on display, one of the hallmarks of brutalist architecture.

Salk Institute exterior stairwells

Since my docent (as nice as she appeared) was delivering a tour full of factual oversights, I took her comment of “don’t go up the stairs to the second level” as “It’s okay to go up the stairs to the second level.” It was lunchtime and the place was surprisingly and extraordinarily empty of people, so I ran up the stairs to get this next view …

Salk Institute exterior concrete stair towers

… totally worth it by the way.

I have always enjoyed Kahn’s work and if you were to ask me what my favorite building was, I would have told you that it was the Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum (evidence as stated on my FAQ page). My familiarity with the Salk notwithstanding, it would not have been very high on my list prior to my visit. For the first time in my life, I went in thinking one way and came away with a complete revelation into how amazing this building and the surrounding spaces are … unbelievable.

You have to experience this building because you won’t get it until you see it for yourself.

I have a handful of Kahn books and I’ve listed a few of my favorites down below

Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis Kahn

Between Silence and Light: Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn
Authored by Louis Kahn and Sam Lobell

Light is the Theme: Louis I. Kahn and the Kimbell Art Museum

Light is the Theme: Louis I. Kahn and the Kimbell Art Museum
Authored by Nell E. Johnson, Louis Kahn, and Eric Lee

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture

Louis Kahn: The Power of Architecture
Authored by William Curtis

Louis Kahn Essential Texts

Louis I. Kahn: Essential Texts
Authored by Louis Kahn and Robert Twombley


I really hope that you will consider a trip to visit this building for yourself. It isn’t that often that a building can affirm that the best at what we do have the ability to take inanimate objects and bring them to life.


Bob signature FAIA


1 I struggled in this post trying to figure out the best way to refer to this project. Around my office, it would simply be called “Salk” or “the Salk” depending on the context. Officially it is the “Salk Institute for Biological Studies”

2 Before Banham coined the term “Brutalism”, it was Hans Asplund who is credited with creating the Swedish term “nybrutalism” which translates into “new brutalism” … and how you can have “new brutalism” before “brutalism” is beyond me, and I don’t have any books in my library that cleared this timeline up for me.

3 Louis I. Kahn; The Idea of Order; Klaus-Peter Gast, page 65

4 Only non-architects say “Louis Kahn”. It’s either “Kahn” or Lou Kahn”.


Poem of the Day: Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther

Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,   
The booze and the neon and Saturday night,   
The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?   
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?   
Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons   
And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite?   
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,   
The booze and the neon and Saturday night?
A. E. Stallings, "Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther" from Poetry, Aprill 2005. Copyright © 2005 by A. E. Stallings. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Source: Poetry April 2005

A. E. Stallings

More poems by this author


Art Quote of the Day

Art Quote of the Day: “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” – Andy Warhol “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”

Grief rituals: what Australia can learn from the Day of the Dead

Day of the Dead Oaxaca, Mexico Copyright Colleen Nordstrom

Australians have few public commemorations of death. We have funerals, roadside memorials and annual Anzac services, but only certain deaths are remembered. For most of us, death and mourning are private affairs. Individuals have to find their own way to preserve the memory of their beloved dead, and process their grief.

This is not the case in other cultures, such as Mexico, where the Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1-2. This is a time for communities, families and friends to gather in celebration as they remember and honour their dead. I am part of a project, working with the Australian Mexican community, exploring how Day of the Dead can open up discussions on dying, end-of-life choices, and grief in Australia. Community and art are central to Day of the Dead, and I believe Australians can learn from these aspects of it.

The Day of the Dead’s origins can be traced to ancient times. Unlike in many Western cultures, here, death is the guest of honour – and like birth, it is viewed as a natural event in the cycle of life. Symbols of death and mortality, such as skeletons, are part of the festivities.

Ofrendas are the centrepiece of Day of the Dead festivities. Decorated like a Christmas tree, ofrendas traditionally hold flowers, candles, photos of the deceased as well as their favourite food items – as well as pan de muertos (“bread of the dead”), a sweet bread shaped into round loaves with faces made of coloured dough.

Traditional ofrenda, includes crimson cockscomb and gold marigold flowers (known by some as ‘flower of the dead’) and food items such as tamales (top left) and pan de muertos (top centre). Oaxaca, Mexico.
Copyright Colleen Nordstrom

After a symposium discussing the Day of the Dead in Melbourne, participants told us that learning about the Mexican tradition had helped them deal with their own grief.

One told how she’d had “very little experience of death” but thought that it provided a “good supportive mechanism” for her to “think about death while celebrating life”. In retrospect, she can now see how it helped her cope with the recent diagnosis of “a very serious cancer” in a young family member. At first, she said, “I was freaking out” but she was able to quickly reframe her thoughts into something more “productive, not just doom and gloom”.

Another participant was transformed by the experience. She said,

we don’t always want to share death or talk about it so this made me look at it in a different light. Something new was being offered, a new awareness, a new way of looking at death and dying and grieving.

When her sister died a few months ago, she credits her new thinking to how it “helped get me through”. She concludes, “I can honestly say it’s not logically something you can explain. I can only tell you how it made me feel”.

Need for ritual

Death-related rituals play a crucial social function in communities. Anthropologists and sociologists have long argued that funeral and grief rituals have existed in every society, for as long as history records. Rituals maintain stability during times of personal chaos. They provide a social container for the expression and containment of strong emotions.

Australian example of a Mexican-inspired ofrenda. Carol Jones (nee Penglis), Día de los Muertos Ofrenda (detail), 2014.
Photograph: Karen Annett-Thomas

In response to violent deaths in Australia, such as the 2014 Lindt cafe hostage crisis in Sydney, even if the dead are strangers to us, we leave flowers and cards in public spaces not typically reserved for mourning. These “spontaneous shrines” are personally motivated, and are not initiated or encouraged by officials.

Unexpected death calls us to remember that – like the ephemeral art created for Day of the Dead and its use of fresh-cut flowers – life is short. And it can end at any time.

We urgently need our community to consider the topics of death and grief. Aspects of Day of the Dead allow us – through respectful cultural appreciation and exchange – to think through our relationships to each other. In the face of our shared mortality, that can only be a good thing.

Everyone need not necessarily take up celebrating Day of the Dead, in whole, or in part – individuals may have other rich cultural practices to draw upon. But to ignore the wisdom offered by this ancient tradition, especially in the absence of personally meaningful, death-related rituals, misses an important opportunity, and I would argue, is foolhardy.

Colleen is speaking at the “Romancing the Skull” exhibition’s Day of the Dead Festival at the Art Gallery of Ballarat on November 1, 2017.

The Conversation

Colleen Nordstrom does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


Diaries, petticoats and copious research: a rare glimpse into Mirka Mora’s artistic process

A detail from Mirka Mora’s Perth Festival Mural 1983; synthetic polymer paint on tin, 6 panels, each 120 x 280 cm (approx.) Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, gift of Paul Swain, 2015.

In February 1983, Melbourne artist Mirka Mora spent two weeks in Perth, painting an almost 21-metre long frieze of six zinc panels. Drawing on imagery as diverse as shipwrecks, cherubs, local flora, black swans and harp-playing quokkas, the mural was made in public during the city’s festival. People flocked to the forecourt of the Perth Concert Hall to watch Mora in action.

At the time, she was already famous: her painted tram had run the streets of Melbourne for five years; she had just painted the foyer of Melbourne’s Playbox Theatre and was teaching her techniques of soft sculpture, embroidery and painting on textile. Her flamboyant personality was well known, ever since her bohemian days of working and partying with her artist friends in the restaurants she ran with her husband Georges.

One of the six paintings in the Mirka Mora Perth Festival Mural 1983; synthetic polymer paint on tin, 6 panels, each 120 x 280 cm (approx.) Detail.
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Paul Swain, 2015.

Less known is Mora’s incredible professionalism, her scholarly way of researching her major works and her meticulous preparation for them. Her diaries from this time offer an insight into this important artist’s work. Mora had no formal training in fine arts, having left school at the age of 13 during the second world war, when her family was arrested and subsequently gone into hiding in the French countryside.

She compensated for this by extensive reading in art history, philosophy and literature, and studying arts treatises and artists’ writings. As she likes to say, “books are the best teachers”, and they are the main source of inspiration for her own imagery. Her intellectual curiosity is wide: she has sought inspiration from medieval bestiaries, the symbolism of colours in the African outdoors, Greek mythology and Christian iconography. For the Perth mural, she studied the local history and scenery, observing the West Australian landscape, its colours and plants, and noting the main features of the region.

A page of Mirka Mora’s diary with sketches of prospective images for the final painting.
Sabine Cotte

The story of the creation of this painting is a fascinating one. Its subsequent fate is also intriguing. When I came across it while researching Mora’s techniques for my PhD, it was at first impossible to find; she recalled only that a lady involved in contemporary art had bought the panels after the festival.

It took some perseverance to finally locate them. The lady was Veda Swain, director of Greenhill galleries in Adelaide and Perth; she’d had the paintings shipped to her home in Adelaide, where they were stored and kept in perfect condition for the next 30 years. Thanks to her son Paul Swain’s generosity, they have now been donated to Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne.

Mirka Mora at work on the Perth painting.
Author provided

Mora painted this work in ten days, with the help of a local artist, Judith van Heeren. She used enamel – a thin and runny paint – which is difficult to apply to vertical metal walls. Still, she easily mastered it due to her previous experience; she had used enamel on board in the late 50s (including a self portrait famously done with a pot of paint left by Sydney Nolan at Heide) and when painting the tram.

Sailing is a big part of WA life, so Mora mixed past and present sailing events in her painting. The infamous wreck of the Pericles near Cape Leeuwin interested her, as she liked the image of the 100 ladies on board – who all survived – floating and being rescued from the water. But the panels also feature the Perie Banou yacht on which WA sailor Jon Sanders circumnavigated Antarctica solo for the first time in 1981, and the Reliance yacht, defender in the 1903 America’s Cup. All these gracefully float between winged cherubs, luxuriant vegetation, a portrait of Sister Ursula Frayne, founder of the first private school in WA in 1849, and the rings of a giant, double-headed snake.

Detail of the Pericles and the floating ladies, Mirka Mora Perth Festival Mural 1983; synthetic polymer paint on tin, 6 panels, each 120 x 280 cm (approx.)
Heide Museum of Modern Art, gift of Paul Swain, 2015.

She organised the composition in a long sequence, framed by a decorative frieze, inspired by the medieval Bayeux tapestry. Historic events and characters are blended with local landmarks such as the Perth Concert Hall, beautiful West Australian black swans, a bottle of olive oil from Cooladerra farm, quokkas and Aboriginal wandjinas, requested by the writer Lady Mary Durack, who came to visit several times

Detail of one panel, with Sister Ursula Frayne, fantastic creatures and vegetation. Mirka Mora Perth Festival Mural 1983; synthetic polymer paint on tin, 6 panels, each 120 x 280 cm (approx.)
Heide Museum of Modern Art, gift of Paul Swain, 2015.

In her diary, historic references, book extracts, personal observations and technical notes are interspersed with small sketches that show her visual and literary mind at work.

“Beautiful scarlet, white and yellow-flowered eucalypti overhang red gravel roads. Characteristic of Perth – black oak, stunted gums give the dark native bush a generally somber appearance,” she wrote on Feburary 10.

“Sound of aeolian song of the wind in the branches of the karri … its voice is heard in spiritual, mysterious echoes like the music of muffled bells far up in an old cathedral tower,” she wrote two days later.

A page of Mirka Mora’s diary with a sketch of a karri tree and comments on the landscape.
Sabine Cotte

Working in public added an extra dimension to Mora’s work. On the plane to Perth, she made friends with two men, exchanging drawings for whiskies. While there, she drew attention with her original sense of dress, including Victorian petticoats and culottes and a big straw hat. One day, she left her shoes behind at a restaurant and continued painting barefoot. Another, she painted a mermaid on the street from a paint pot knocked over by the wind. It threw the city council into a terrible dilemma over its cleaning.

She was so driven by her work that one day she left her hotel across the road wearing only a pair of Victorian underwear (drawers that reached below the knee, with separate legs joined only at the waist). She had painted for an hour before realising that she had graced passers-by with the occasional glimpse of her bare bottom, and had to rush back to put a skirt on.

Mirka Mora with one of her painted soft sculptures, March 2014.
Sabine Cotte

People gave her funny presents such as an antique porcelain Punch (no Judy), a pair of buttoned up shoes and a bottle of wine (carried by a big dog). Mora says that she “liked to share and to think that while people are watching they are also learning something”.

It is easy to forget that being a successful woman artist was the exception at this time. Mora’s approach to the public, her accessibility and her clever use of material culture have helped build her reputation and personal myth, but they also define a place for her within feminist art movements of the 1980s.

The Conversation

Sabine Cotte received funding from the Australian Government ( Australian Postgraduate Award) for doing her PhD at the University of Melbourne.


Frankenstein: Making of a Modern Myth

Image shown above of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in 1931, courtesy of Rex Features 

There’s an indication of the longevity of one of literature’s most enduring stories in the title of Christopher Frayling’s new book, Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years, published by Reel Art Press. There’s also the belief it is a story that will be told for centuries more.

Since its publication on New Year’s Day 1818, Mary Shelley’s novel has continued to transfix readers, but her story has also continued to evolve a second and third life in the theatre and on film where the image of the creature – ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ – has been defined by a handful of actors and skilled make-up artists and become an icon of the horror canon.

The image of the creature and the elements of his formation, from his mad scientist creator and laboratory, to the thunder and lightning, is deeply embedded within our visual culture and, as Halloween descends, is arguably most visible at this time each year.

The monster is in fact the third most adapted literary character in cinematic history (behind Sherlock Holmes and Dracula) and continues to act as a symbol for scientific ambition, alienation and social rejection, while seeming equally at home in the 20th and 21st-centuries across a spectrum of musicals, cartoons, advertising and merchandise.

Before revealing a host of artistic treasures that form part of the visual evolution of Frankenstein, Frayling’s book also details the story’s fascinating genesis – an origin story that is almost as mythic as the novel itself. 

In 1816, the 18 year-old Mary Godwin was staying at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva, having eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (they were married later that year). The poet Lord Byron and his physician, John Polidori, were also guests. During their stay a challenge was laid down to concoct a ghost story and, over the night of June 17th, Godwin got the chance to tell her tale and shared the startling ‘creation scene’ from what would later become her first novel, published two years later in an edition of 500 copies.

Frayling tells the story of Frankenstein as it was unleashed into the world and how its unique visual imagery has taken shape in its transformation from novel, to stage plays and into cinema, over the course two hundred years. He also writes of what the story taps into in our own time – and why it seems we still refuse to let the monster alone.

Creative Review: What was your first introduction to Frankenstein?

Christopher Frayling: I was eleven years old, much too young! The manager let me into the Plaza [cinema] in Piccadilly where they were showing The Revenge of Frankenstein [in 1958], which scared the pants off me and sowed the seed. And funnily enough, it was the films that came first with me. I then started reading Frankenstein and indeed Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was 12 or 13 years old.

The poster for The Revenge of Frankenstein said ‘We dare you to forget it!’ and I never did. In some ways, the whole of my life has been exorcising the demon of that afternoon in the cinema…. Of course, the great thing about Hammer [Films] was that it was in colour for the first time, whereas we tend to associate these old horror films with Hollywood black and white. Gore was very Technicolor! But it scared the shit out of me, so there we are.

CR: In the book you cover Mary’s background extensively. Writers at this time were interested in philosophy and new ideas, but it seems that there was a strong connection to science at the time as well?

CF: Yes, the kind of specialisms that we associate with art and science is very much a Victorian invention, putting things in separate boxes. And if you look at the people involved in the famous ghost story session – there’s Shelley, who experimented with chemistry when he was at Oxford; there’s Mary, who sat at the dinner table with her father, William Godwin, with the most distinguished scientists of the day – that was her university almost – and Doctor Polidori [Lord Byron’s physician], who’d just graduated at a very young age from Edinburgh University. These people, although they were artists they were also scientists and they didn’t see a distinction between the two.

The thing about the novel is that it operates at two different levels…. Yes, there’s the science, all the debates about contemporary science, whether it’s ‘where does the spark of life come from?’, [to] amputation, galvanism (‘Can you electrify someone into life?’) and so on. But at the same time, it’s quite deeply autobiographical, because Mary’s mother [Mary Wollstonecraft] died shortly after [giving birth to her] and Frankenstein is the great story of the motherless child. What happens if there’s only a [father]? Then what happens if the father rejects you the moment he sees you?

In fact, in contemporary psychology there’s something called the ‘Frankenstein Syndrome’ where a mother rejects a new born baby, as sometimes happens. There’s that moment in the book – the [section] she told that night [in Geneva] and the pivot of the whole story – [where Frankenstein] creates this creature, takes one look at it and runs out of the room.

So in some ways the creature is looking for love, looking to belong, looking for some sort of relationship and, eventually, if he can’t have a family, he’s jolly well going to kill Frankenstein’s family one by one. Biographies of Mary Shelley tend to look for the biographical elements. And within pop culture and science fiction, people have looked for the scientific elements. But they’re both there. And I don’t think Mary Godwin was the most experienced of writers – remember she was 18 when she wrote it, 19 when it was going through the press and 20 when it was published.

CR: Is the way that the science plays out in the novel different from how we have been used to seeing it depicted on screen?

CF: Her treatment of science is quite vague, in a way, even though we know that she listened to quite detailed discussions about science. For the ‘operation’ scene, for example, all she says is “I gathered the instruments of life around me”, full stop. That’s it. Well, that’s a whole reel in a Hollywood movie! Igor rushing around throwing the switches, lightning, generators – I mean, you have to be literal when you make a movie, you have to explain to the audience what’s going on, but she wasn’t awfully interested in that.

And she doesn’t describe the stitches, for example. When you piece someone together on screen, you’ve got to show the stitches! So although she knew a lot about the science, actually the science in it is clearly vague – and deliberately [so]. In fact, at the beginning, Frankenstein says, I’m not going to tell you how I did it, because then other people will want to do it. That’s quite a clever alibi for not explaining anything, really.

It’s a poignant story. What the films never capture is … this theme of belonging, this theme of the creature actually being. And all the spare parts that have been sewn together are selected for their beauty, says Frankenstein, and also for their proportion.

So in some ways, the creature is very beautiful, but if you look into his eyes there’s something odd about him. And the eyes are the giveaway, he’s dead behind the eyes so people run away from him. And slowly he becomes monstrous because he’s treated as monstrous – [but] of course in the movies, he’s a monster from the word go. He just grunts.

One thing that interested me about this was that the review that [Mary] liked best was the one written by [Sir] Walter Scott. [He says] about the book that most horror stories are highly improbable – headless horses, monks, Henry VIII’s wives wandering around the battlements – but that [hers] is based on possibilities in science and their human consequences.

And he says, [while] we haven’t got a word for it, she’s invented a new form of literature. What he was basically saying was she’s invented science fiction. And that really pleased her…. He really got there. It was a cut above the rest, because she knew that this science was in the ether, it’s possible, you just push it a little bit and look at its human consequences. And in a way that’s a great definition of science fiction. Although they didn’t have the phrase yet.

CR: The story of the novel’s conception – the challenge to come up with a ghost story during a dramatic storm – is now also the stuff of legend. Was it an element that Shelley or her publishers would have used to sell the book?

CF: Not immediately. It came out on New Year’s Day 1818 – [it was] anonymous, in three volumes, very expensive, 16 shillings and sixpence [in an edition of 500]. It was [a] very limited circulation to start with and so it was the plays, the spin-offs – because intellectual property hadn’t been invented yet – that carried the story into the cultural bloodstream. There were eight versions of Frankenstein by 1825 on the West End stage.

Then, on the rebound from the plays, Mary brings out a new edition in 1831, adds the introduction where she describes the circumstances of its genesis – Geneva, thunderstorms, Lord Byron, all of that – and also puts her name on the title page, proudly saying ‘by Mary W Shelley’.

At that point, the story of its origin becomes completely confused with the story itself and becomes just as notorious, if not more so. It’s not really until 1831 [though] – no-one was quite sure who wrote it to start with. In fact, Walter Scott in this wonderful review says it was written by Shelley – so she wrote to him saying, I loved the review but hang on a minute, he didn’t write it, I did.

So it took a bit of time. But once the two are associated it becomes a myth in itself, the creation of it. And [as with] a lot of horror stories in the 19th century, the circumstances of their creation become as famous as the stories: [with] Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde, [there’s] the story of Robert Louis Stephenson burning the first draft because it was too extreme and then producing the second draft; or Bram Stoker having this terrible nightmare – having eaten a bad crab salad one night and then going straight to bed – and out of that comes Dracula. So they each have their own sort of creation myth which is quite interesting.

CR: It’s like the story that Coleridge put out around the writing of his poem, Kubla Khan. He begins to set it down having conceived of it in a dream, but someone allegedly interrupts him as he writes – and the rest of it is lost.

CF: Exactly. And I think by 1831 Mary Shelley had a modest allowance from the Shelley family – Shelley was by now dead, they all were, the men of the party – she lived on her journalism and writing and the Kubla Khan reference is a good one because I think she’s quite deliberately pumping the circumstances out of which it was born to increase sales.

She needed the royalties by then. And the whole introduction is the most fantastic piece of branding. It was great to get permission from the Bodleian to publish the entire manuscript of the creation scene [in the new book] – I was really pleased with that. That’s never been published like that before.

The other very thrilling thing was there’s a couple of pictures of the 1820s [theatrical] versions of Frankenstein, a colour one of the creature, which has never been seen by anybody before. It’s from a little pad of watercolour sketches that a theatre historian bought at auction – and realised that this [was made by] a guy who sat in the stalls in the 1820s and did watercolours of what he saw on stage. It’s fabulous.

CR: As the story moves on from book form to the theatre and into film, how does Frankenstein mutate into the set of distinctive visual images we know today?

CF: Part of my story is that what got Frankenstein into the cultural bloodstream wasn’t so much the book; it was the adaptations, which made it much cruder. The ‘mad’ scientist, grunting monster, comic research assistant called Igor or Fritz, the laboratory at the top of the stairs, all these things were set by the mid-1820s and then Hollywood, a century later, picks up on all of them because it’s a shortcut, it’s a great way of adapting it, really. But in the process it becomes the archetypal ‘mad scientist’ movie. And one thing Frankenstein isn’t is mad. He’s ambitious, he’s obsessed, he over-reaches, but he’s a brilliant scientist.

And in fact the first draft of Frankenstein is much more pro-science than any of the adaptations. It’s the first novel about the education of a young scientist ever to be written. Off he goes to Ingolstadt to begin his whole curriculum – he goes through medieval science and modern science and finds it a bit unambitious, too detailed, too specialised – he wants to ask the big questions that the medieval people asked, but in a modern context.

And I think there’s an element here of Mary Shelley saying, I love all this but I’m frightened if they go too far. And there she is surrounded by Byron who’s escaped England because he fell in love with his half sister – and probably his servant as well – and Shelley, who’s run away from his responsibilities, Harriet his wife is back at home with the children. And Shelley is an atheist and pushes things as far as they can go.

There’s an element in the novel, I think, of ‘careful … you’re pushing it a bit further than I would’, both in the arts and in the sciences. Off they go to the Alps, and Shelley writes in the visitor’s book, ‘Destination: Hell’ and ‘Profession: Atheist’! I mean, that was a scary thing to do in 1816. And I think Mary would have thought, OK, this is all very well but where’s this leading?

So I think the great myth is that this is a novel about a mad scientist – and it isn’t, actually. [Mary’s] quite sympathetic about Frankenstein, it’s just that he over does it.

And then you read at the very end, and I don’t think this is noticed nearly enough, Frankenstein’s last words. There he is in the Arctic, dying in the arms of Robert Walton the polar explorer – and he says, ‘Others will come later and complete my work’. And those are his last words.

So he’s not saying oh forget it, it’s a no-no, it’ll end in tears, no-one should ever do research – he’s saying, look, it went wrong for me but the whole nature of science is that next time they get it right. And that’s a wonderful thing – in the era of three-parent families, robotics, artificial intelligence, in vitro-fertilisation, they certainly have stood on Frankenstein’s shoulders.

CR: You can see how the themes in the story still connect to that sense today.

CF: Very much so. And I have that long quote at the beginning [of the book] that chemistry and physics make us anxious, but biology makes us really anxious. Because it’s about the core of our being in a way, the roadmap of our lives.

So anything to do with biological development, genomes, in vitro, all that, makes us very anxious, always. And here’s this ‘F’ word, on the shelf as a metaphor for our anxieties. I don’t know of any other example in pop culture, or in any culture, of a metaphor that’s invented 200 hundred years ago that we will still use every time there’s a piece of science that makes us anxious. Genetically modified crops? Oh they’re ‘Frankenstein foods’ – and there it is on the shelf, it still lives.

CR: And as you say in the title of the book, this is just the first two hundred years.

CF: Yes, you wait until 200 hundred years’ time, it’ll still be in the culture! It’s extraordinary really. The other thing [is], I looked in detail at the two versions – the 1818 version, the triple-decker, and the 1831 [edition] – and they are quite different books in way.

Mary rewrote it, cut out a lot of the science, cut out a lot of the radicalism, added the word ‘mad’, added the word ‘presumption’, which she got from the play – and she’s sort of recasting her novel to cash in on the plays.

CR: So the plays were influencing the ongoing creation of her own text?

CF: Yes, definitely. And it’s a commercial decision by them; she needs the money. The Shelley family were horrible to her and they wanted custody of the children … and gave her a very meagre allowance on condition that she never write a biography of Shelley. She wanted to write a biography of him and they flatly refused to let her – if she did they’d cut off the allowance the following day.

CR: What was so attractive to filmmakers about the Frankenstein story?

CF: I think early horror films were slightly ashamed – horror, as a genre, hadn’t been invented yet, the rules were still being worked out. But they were slightly ashamed of telling nasty stories, so they covered themselves in the silent period in literary credentials.

So the horror films tend to say ‘this is based on the well known poem by Edgar Allen Poe’ or ‘this is based on the classic novel by Mary Shelley’ – it’s as if they’re apologising, you can’t just do a horror film for the sake of a horror film, as it were, you’ve got to say ‘this is classy, what we’re doing is simply adapting a novel’. And the other thing was that it was in the public domain, so it was free, there was no copyright, Mary having died in 1851, it was well out of copyright by the time cinema was invented.

And there’s this theatrical tradition – the Edisons’ 1910 film which has turned up and you can get on DVD now … you watch it and it’s like the experience of watching one of those plays in the 1820s, it’s an absolute hotline to that style of acting. So it’s got more to do with the 19th century than with cinema.

I think the creature looks like he did on the stage, it’s very melodramatic, he’s turned into an alchemist with a bubbling cauldron, rather than modern science – all the things that happened on the stage in the 1820s. It’s not really until [Boris] Karloff in 1931 that it comes into its own as a cinematic myth. Everybody who has made a Frankenstein film since 1931 has to take into account that moment [and] the make up.

CR: Yes, you write that the make-up Boris Karloff wore was trademarked by Universal – and it has now become the definitive 20th-century version of the creature.

CF: And poor old Hammer, they had to work out a new way of making Christopher Lee [look different] – because they would have been sued if they’d made it look like Karloff. Until they did a deal with Universal and then suddenly it looks like Karloff.

CR: And since then, what about some of the other productions in film and theatre that moved this look on and even moved away from it – were they successful?

CF: I’m not too much of a fan of the Kenneth Branagh one to be honest – although it tried very hard to be a serious adaptation, with Robert Walton the explorer going off to the polar region, you get that very complicated structure of three autobiographies – of Walton, of the scientist and of the creature, and they tried to keep all that, it made it … not very frightening and unwieldy and turned it into costume drama.

The thing I remember most was Benedict Cumberbatch on the stage of the National Theatre, in the Danny Boyle production of a few years ago. And it began with this large womb hanging on the stage and inside it you could see the silhouette of a grown up baby.

It was Cumberbatch inside the womb, he was in there as the audience was coming in for about 20 minutes. He lies down and cuts his way out, all the amniotic fluid pours onto the stage and he’s completely naked. And for the first five minutes, in mime, he is the creature trying to come to terms with the world around him: sound, taste, touch, all the senses.

It was quite brilliant. Like a grown up baby trying to understand the world around him, it took my breath away. It said so much. There’s a scene in the novel when the creature looks at the moon and has to work out why has it got dark. Or he looks at his own reflection in a pool and can’t cope with who is that out there? And all of that was in that first five minutes. And he didn’t look anything like Karloff – he looked like a sort of overgrown baby with scars.

CR: And there have been other science fiction films that take on this visual currency – I’m thinking of the replicant emerging from the womb-like sac in the new Blade Runner 2049 film. These seem to originate with Frankenstein.

CF: Again, if you look at that illustration of 1831 – the only one we know Mary Shelley approved of, by Theodore von Holt, he’s built like a Chippendale! He’s beautiful, very muscular, his skin is very taught, he has lustrous black hair – she describes [him as having] pearly white teeth; [Frankenstein] has chosen all the parts with great care so he’ll look like the ideal man, like Leonardo’s Vitruvian man, with the arms out, exactly proportioned.

But there’s something odd about him. And it scares him. It is extraordinary that the Karloff image should have caught on, as it’s the polar opposite of that; he’s a bug-eyed monster from the word go, a bloody great cranium, bolts in his neck, huge eyelids, giant boots as he stumbles around – yet it’s become more powerful than the original.

I was in New York [last week] and was going past all these shop windows … the witches hat and the Frankenstein’s monster, usually painted green, are the two key images of Halloween. Every shop window in New York has Karloff looking at you and a witch’s hat. It’s incredible really, it’s just so deep in the culture.

CR: The monster is clearly still alive and well today, but do you get a sense of what he represents having changed in that time?

CF: In [the] 1931 [film], the thing was that instead of this subtle allegory of social rejection, he has a dysfunctional brain sewn into his head, because ‘Fritz’ is dyslexic and picks the wrong brain at the University of Goldstadt. He had this bad brain sewn into his head – he’s going to be a monster even before he gets up.

So the whole of the central volume of Frankenstein, which is this social rejection, gets completely lost in ‘monster-has-bad-brain-sewn-into-his-head’. But then, post-1950s when you’ve had The Munsters, endless cartoon versions, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein – which has just opened in London – he’s become sort of cuddly, and that’s a new development again….

So you get model kits and soft toys, he’s on serial packets and so he’s kind of lost the scariness of the Karloff film to become a companion for children.

Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years by Christopher Frayling is published by Reel Art Press; £29.95. See

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