When Joshua Aidlin was a freshman in college studying architecture, he brought a project home to show his father, who was then the head of the sculpture department at the Cleveland Institute of Art. As Aidlin described how he arrived at the form, his father stopped him to say, “The day you define your process is the day you should hang it up.”

After recalling the anecdote with a laugh, Aidlin, who runs the San Francisco firm Aidlin Darling Design with principal David Darling, doesn’t hesitate to describe a variety of approaches he uses for leading the firm of about 20 people to successful designs.

For a courtyard residence, the team did a series of bas-reliefs to better understand the threshold and “engage the concept of foreshadowing.” For a house in Doha, Qatar, they completed string and sculptural studies to figure out how to carve the flat, barren landscape. For a winery, the architects used a paper bag to create a model, mimicking topography with the bag’s folds. “We fully embrace the computer as a great tool, but we typically don’t start there,” says Aidlin.

One constant in the beginning stages of a project is camping out on the site. It’s a way for Aidlin, Darling, and the project architect to become immersed in the context and read the site with all five senses before coming up with early design schemes. “We’re not adding buildings to a context; we try to listen carefully to extract a building. It’s much more sensitive, we hope, in its end result,” says Aidlin.

The firm also holds office-wide critiques. For a 30,000-square-foot high school in Santa Rosa, California, that recently broke ground, the entire staff pinned up their ideas after learning about the project’s constraints. “It’s interesting how much we unconsciously absorbed from that session,” says Aidlin. Most project teams include either Aidlin or Darling—but not both. “The second principal only comes in during major critiques. Some of the most important insights are from that person who’s been in on it for just an hour,” notes the architect.

Aidlin Darling also relies on outside contributors—artists, fabricators, and consultants—with whom they brainstorm and shape designs. “If you actually broke down where an idea came from . . . the web is massive,” says Aidlin. “That is the beauty of architecture.”

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