When you think about Sonoma, it probably is not contemporary architecture that comes to mind. The area’s identity exists somewhere between its actual history and the one crafted by the wine industry, suspended in another era. It is fitting then that the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art is hosting an exhibit of contemporary architecture that treats Sonoma as something more than a wine country destination.
Site and Senses, The Architecture of Aidlin Darling Design is an intimate and engaging exhibit of recent work by the San Francisco–based architecture studio known for mining the particularities of place. The show fills the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art with an array of sensitive site-specific explorations. Delicate drawings etched with an inquiring touch, tiny concept models fragile even to the gaze (“I don’t know how I’d get my fingers around wood that small,” observed one viewer), full-size construction mockups, fragments of building materials, elaborate presentation models, and the occasional de rigueur photorealistic computer rendering and highly-saturated architectural photograph. With the recent mania for vaporous computer visualizations, it is refreshing that the bulk of this collection is tactile and process-oriented. After hours in this exhibit there are still new details to discover.
The firm introduces its sensory approach to place making with the exhibit design itself. You enter the show through a funnel of fire-charred cedar wood planks that modulate light, muffle ambient sounds, and immerse you in the scent of burned wood. A darkened anteroom draws you closer with small-scaled sketches and models, leading to an orgy of material samples and exhibit furniture of sumptuous woods and weathered steel, and, finally, the projects themselves. This theatrical sequence strategically heightens your senses and draws you from the outside world into the space of their making, an exhibit design that functions as a microcosm of how the firm’s architecture operates. “There is an ethos in our studio which truly nurtures the exploration of a wide range of materials,” chimes a video interview looping in the back of the gallery. “If there’s any way our work can reconnect us to ourselves and to place, that’s what it’s all about. Designing for all the senses is how you achieve that.”
But it is the work located in Sonoma itself that adds an interesting dimension to the exhibit, with three of the six projects tackling the signature Sonoma condition: wine, food, and gargantuan residential estates. “Food, wine, art, and architecture are intrinsically connected to place,” begins the description for the McEvoy ranch project in Petaluma. The architects underscore this belief with building designs that are equal parts shelter and topography, with perforated metal scrims that emulate glowing cloudy skies and pavement patterns that evoke agrarian land patterns. Similarly, the buildings on the Sonoma Vineyard Estate—two residences and a barn on a staggering 140-acre site—emerge from the land with rusticated walls that resonate with the carpet of summer grasses, rusted metal roofs that play off of the vineyard’s weathered steel trellis posts and ruddy groves of valley oaks, and a loose articulation of volumes that connect sightlines between residence and landscape, patio and sky. In these and other projects, tectonic articulation dominates. It is the formal relationship between materials—line to plane, surface to surface, steel to glass, rammed earth to wood—that is the mainstay of their architectural language. The result is a ubiquitous dynamic tension between surfaces, and a presence both deferential and evocative, “informed by the rhythm of the day, the passage of the sun, the sound of the wind in the trees, and the feel of the topsoil underfoot.” However, for all of the articulate exploration of material relationships and sensory experiences, what is not as clear are the intended relationships among the people the buildings are designed for, or to the context they are in. Floor plans—the Rosetta Stone of social relations—are downplayed or missing; building occupants are underrepresented or altogether anonymous; building functions can be a challenge to decipher; and, most tellingly, not a single project is documented beyond its own property boundaries. In the design for the Roseland University Preparatory High School in Santa Rosa, a commission defined by its social values, the design itself relies largely on formal operations to describe the building—“slice, pull, carve, insert, thread, punch, engage”—leaving the social agenda undefined. While these projects excel in their sensory sensitivity, they reveal a social insularity and a hint of self-absorption.
This retreat into personal sensory experience may well serve an important purpose as antidote to the depersonalization of a market-driven cultural landscape such as the wine country. In this, Aidlin Darling succeed: Both the exhibit and the projects offer an intimacy and individual connection to the unique qualities of place that leave your personal senses awakened.