BUILD visited with designer and architect Joshua Aidlin at his San Francisco office, where they discussed what it means to be multidisciplinary, why his firm, Aidlin Darling, designs for the entire food chain and the importance of camping out on-site. (Also, find Part II of the interview on the BUILD Blog.)
BUILD: Some firms push the envelope of design, while others tend to get things built. What ingredients have contributed to the fact that Aidlin Darling is doing both very well?
Joshua Aidlin: My business partner, David Darling, and I set out to create a studio environment rather than an office environment.It’s based more on an academic studio—both physically and emotionally, in its size and in how we study a problem. The platform we originally started with was not just to create buildings; we wanted the studio to be multidisciplinary so we could potentially take on sculpture and industrial design projects as well. Having an ethos of exploration in all creative mediums opens the door to discovery on any project, emotionally and sensually. For that reason we’re Aidlin Darling Design and not Aidlin Darling Architects.
From the beginning we were also furniture designers and makers. We have a fascination with how things are made. Once we have a commission, it’s an opportunity to create something much more than just a building; it’s an opportunity to explore different materials, light and the physical makeup of architecture.
B: How do different clients respond to this ethos of exploration?
AD: Often times, residential clients tend to bemore conservative than the clients of public projects, whether it’s a restaurant, a school or a chapel. Because it’s not what they’re living in, they’re much more open to exploring different physical manifestations of architecture. As we have segued from being a private to amore public-sector firm, this relationship has opened up exponentially.
B: Moving out of the residential realm and into the public realm, do people have fewer preconceptions about what things should look like?
AD: Absolutely, and this gives us more freedom. San Francisco can be a very conservative market, but it’s slowly changing. Fortunately, we’ve already established our reputation of creating thoughtful, well-crafted architecture, and we have plenty of built work. We can reassure a client that they’ll get an extremely high-quality building, making them more willing to experiment with the architecture.
B: With the design role you’ve played in some of Northern California’s most notable restaurants, bars and wineries, is there a common thread for you between food and design?
AD: Given our rural backgrounds, we have this interest in designing to the entire food chain. We’re fascinated with the whole ecology—from worker housing and organic markets, to restaurants and wineries.
We’re currently working with chef-owner Corey Lee (Benu) and bartender-owner Thad Vogler (Bar Agricole), each of whom is obsessed with the craft of food. The ingredients and combinations are an art form to them, just like buildings are to us. With these projects, it’s essential to get inside the psyche of what’s important to the bartenders and chefs.
For example, the entire design of Bar Agricole is driven by a very simple concept: At 95 percent of restaurants, your liquids are served by the bar. This means the bartender is attending to everyone at the bar and also scrambling to accommodate the patrons in the dining room. Given this circumstance, the drinks are typically compromised. The design of Agricole centers around two bars: a public bar and a private bar that serves the restaurant exclusively. As a diner, every drink you get – whether it’s coffee, tea, beer, wine or a cocktail – is treated with the same specificity and craft as the food. This concept drove the entire plan.
B: Your role in The Edible Schoolyard Project takes the involvement of an architect fostering community to the next level. Can you describe how this project came to be?
AD: I live right next to the projects, and I would take my son to the rec center every Saturday to watch basketball games. Looking around one day, I noticed that all of the children were surviving on Coca-Cola and Cheetos. I started to ask myself why this was, and I realized that the only bodega in a five-block area wasn’t serving anything healthy. We’re essentially asking the youth of the community to go to school on a diet which is criminal. There is no possible way they will be able to focus and achieve academically.
My response was that I needed to show my son what it means to be a part of a community, and I needed to be a problem solver out of concern for my community. A light bulb went off, which happened to parallel a fifteen-year endeavor to tear down the projects and rebuild low-income, market-rate and affordable housing. I started teaming up with the public schools, community members and developers to create an edible schoolyard and an organic marketplace. The marketplace is where the entire community comes together on a daily basis to learn about, purchase and share food in a healthful way. Since then, we’ve been doing much more semi-self-initiated, community-driven, sustainable work.
B: Your team takes on architecture, interiors, landscape design and product design projects. Is there a threshold at which being multidisciplinary spreads the firm too thin?
AD: There certainly is a danger to it. I used to physically make everything, and I don’t have time for that anymore; I miss being in the woodshop. I still think the cross-pollination within the studio is reinforcing rigorous designs in ways you might not predict. There may be a threshold, but we haven’t crossed it.
B: Is there a perfect-size office in your experience?
AD: We’re at the tipping point with sixteen or seventeen people because David and I don’t want to solely be managers. At this size we still get to engage at the level of materiality and detail exploration. I get to go to every meeting with the craftspeople on a project and have a dialogue with the project architect. I get to have conversations with the maker about how far we can push concrete or how to texture the finish. If we get too big, I won’t be in any of those meetings. Ultimately, you want to enjoy what you do, and if you love collaborating with the makers and engaging people who really need your services, you have to have the time to do it.
One of the things that makes our studio unique is that we treat everyone in the office as a designer. We need them to be designing regardless of what they’re working on. Everyone gets a lot of input on the design whether they have two or twenty-five years of experience. It’s an incredibly democratic office.
We’re currently designing a 30,000-square-foot high school in Santa Rosa, and we started it with a collaborative group design effort. We gave the whole studio the problem statement, and a week later, before the principal and project architect had even started designing, everyone presented their ideas. It was shocking how many great concepts percolated unconsciously and ended up in the final design.
B: What challenges have you faced over the years?
AD: The biggest challenge was segueing from private to public sector work because we had to jog the public’s perception of our firm. That involved an aggressive pursuit of requests for proposals and qualifications and then winning those commissions without much public work experience. You have to find someone willing to take a chance on you.
B: What measures do you use to track the success of the firm?
AD: Much of it is how you feel at the end of a project and being proud of what you do. With every project, we’ve left everything on the table. It’s not like we’ve held back. That’s all you can really ask. We take great pride in the culture we’ve developed within the studio.
B: You’ve mentioned that your work requires slowing down and taking in the stimuli of a site. Being the urbanite that you are, do you have psychological tools to help you slowdown and get into that mode?
AD: It involves the ability to only take on projects that you can devote a focused effort to. We try not to overbook ourselves. If you give yourselves enough time to actually focus on the design, you can do it. On every one of our projects, we camp out on-site, whether rural or urban. Just being there with no distractions and absorbing what the site has to offer allows a quietness and an ability to reflect.
B: Your work is based on sensuality as a counter part to the rationality of architecture. Is this a response to a society that’s become too scientific about things?
AD: It’s a huge personal focus and a personal obsession with craft. You can walk into a very rational building and feel nothing. But you know it when you walk into an Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright or Peter Zumthor building. They are acknowledging all of the senses—and that is the backbone of our practice. By designing to all of the senses, your buildings will ultimately have a very sensual quality.
B: What is on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?
AD: Atmospheres by Peter Zumthor.