Seymour Benzer (crippling the Salk Institute)

One of the most fascinating stories in Benzer’s oral history interview is about construction of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California:

Benzer: Louis Kahn [the architect] asked Salk, “How much money have you got to put into the building?” And Salk said, “Ten million for endowment” — this was all from the commitment from the March of Dimes — “and a million dollars a year for operating expenses in perpetuity.” So Kahn went home and designed a building for $20 million. In fact, he bragged about this at some dinner he had in La Jolla. He talked about other buildings he had designed and he said it was always his policy to make the building for twice as much as the money available, because you could always count on the fact that people scurry around to find the extra money.

Salk went for that idea on the argument that later on it would cost much more to build it. That was absolutely true. But at the time it had the effect of liquidating the endowment. And everything suffered from then on. The institute . . . was always worrying about where the next buck was coming from.
. . .
Interviewer: So they liquidated their entire endowment to construct a more expensive building?

Benzer: Yes.

Kahn knew a general principal about human nature that I do not. Why do backers reliably “scurry around to find the extra money”? Something powerful is at work here.

4 Replies to “Seymour Benzer (crippling the Salk Institute)”

  1. That’s an old sales trick. Show them the super duper model and they will never be satisfied with the car they can actually afford unless they’ve firmly planted in their mind that they don’t need all those extras. Who wants a crummy 10 million dollar building when they can have the really nice 20 million building? If there is a way, it will be found if the desire is sufficient. So in this case better is the enemy of the good enough.

  2. Almost 20 years ago, on a Fourth of July weekend in Studio City, my husband and I saw an ad in the paper for brand-new $10,000 dollar Camrys at our local Toyota dealership.

    I had my husband call to make sure they actually had $10,000 Camrys on the lot. They did.

    When we got there the place was mobbed with people not buying $10,000 Camrys.

    We said we’d come for the $10,000 Camry. The salesman told us we didn’t want the $10,000 Camry because the $10,000 Camry had a standard transmission.

    I said standard transmission gave you “more power.”

    The salesman looked at me for a second, then turned and walked away without another word. Obviously the guy figured that if the wife was saying a standard had more power, it was hopeless.

    We went home with a $10,000 Camry.

    The guy who finally found the car & sold it to us threw in a set of fancy wheel rims for free.

    Our nanny owns the car now, and is still driving it.

Comments are closed.