Senses and Sensibilities: Aidlin Darling Design

Architecture | Apr 2015 | BY Dan Rubinstein

With the recent completion of the Windhover Contemplative Center at Stanford University, San Francisco-based architecture firm Aidlin Darling Design can comfortably boast an impressive body of work that combines West Coast Modernism with a thoroughly contemporary process. Named for a series of large abstract paintings by the late Californian painter Nathan Oliveira (that are housed in the nondenominational structure), the 4,000- square-foot center uses louvered skylights to naturally bathe its wooden, rammed-earth environment in sunlight.

Aidlin Darling Design’s Windhover Contemplative Center opened at Stanford University last fall.

Instead of creating a quiet gallery for the works, principals David Darling and Joshua Aidlin sought to instill a sense of awareness in potentially melancholic visitors. “I describe the body as a vehicle for all the senses,” says Darling. “Your eyes are navigating and setting up your next move while your feet are feeling terra firma or something hollow. We try to exploit all of these things, whether it’s tactile or olfactory. It could be the smell of an oak wall or a wood floor or the solidity of stone. We create a sensory map for the experience.” It may be immersive, but the Zen-like project does cut off students from one source of stimuli: their phones. Some of the materials Aidlin Darling chose sever cellular signals, keeping them digitally isolated.

Darling and Aidlin met at the architecture program at the University of Cincinnati, but didn’t form a bond until eight years later in San Francisco. They founded their firm soon thereafter in 1998. Their friendship started with friendly critiques of each other’s work, and that constructive ethos lives on today in their office of 19. “It’s a very informal working environment,” says Aidlin. “It’s like a research laboratory that has a woodshop. We have the ability to physically make things, and we study design on all fronts—from the object to the space to the landscape.” Their collaborative environment led to a 2013 National Design Award for interior design from the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. “We have an incredibly democratic office,” Aidlin continues. “When we start a job, the project architect and the principal first set out all the critical information and present it to the office. We’ll brainstorm individually, and then everyone in the office presents ideas. It’s not the kind of office where the principal hibernates, comes up with a supposedly genius idea and then asks the team to realize it.”

Murray Residence

Aidlin Darling Design gave this 60-acre vineyard estate in Sonoma a touch of West Coast Modernism.

While Aidlin and Darling started with a steady stream of residential projects, they’ve since branched out, but their various endeavors always retain a common thread of restrained serenity. For the LEED-certified, three-story space at 355 11th Street in San Francisco, a prime example of adaptive reuse that includes office spaces, they blanketed the structure with a double-skinned metal façade that provided both a striking face-lift and a variety of sustainable benefits. The pair also won a James Beard award for the creation of the adjacent Bar Agricole, which used cast concrete and recycled wood punctuated by billowy, skirt-like glass sculptures to channel the sun via skylights. “There’s a lot of custom-fabricated concrete techniques there, some of which were the first used in the country, as well as very low-tech board-formed concrete,” says Aidlin. “It was a great exploration of holistic design, accomplished in a very modest but sensual way.” The twin projects helped spur growth in the neighborhood. “Now there are clubs and restaurants all around it,” Aidlin continues. “It’s not just about solving a client’s problem. You can actually solve your own, while bringing vibrancy to an entire community.”

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