Profile: Katherine Darnstadt, One of Chicago’s AIA Young Architects of the Year

People are always sending us e-mail messages asking for information about Chicago’s latest and greatest architecture.  Today we present one of Chicago’s latest and greatest architects.

Katherine Darnstadt is one of five people from Chicagoland selected for this year’s AIA Young Architects Award.  The AIA describes her thusly:

Through her practice, Latent Design, Darnstadt seeks to create “social, economic, and environmental impacts beyond the building.” Darnstadt aims to expand the definition of an architect by using design as a catalyst to engage communities.

In a recent e-mail exchange with the Chicago Architecture Blog’s Bill Motchan she tells us about her life and work.

Katherine Darnstadt

Katherine Darnstadt

  • Name: Katherine Darnstadt
  • Age: 30
  • University: Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Hometown: Chicago
  • Last architecture book read: “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck

Q. How did you make the decision to pursue a career in architecture?

A. I was previously studying English and philosophy and left that undergraduate program for architecture. So, an excessive amount of existentialism and the desire to understand context in order to create content brought me to the built environment and architecture.

Q. What do you like best about being an architect?

A. Being able to work at the intersection of policy and design to create more sustainable spaces, places, equity and access.

Q. What’s your favorite building in Chicago?

AquaA. I like all buildings; the ones that work and the ones that don’t work even more. Aqua, [the former] State of Illinois Building, the Spertus Institute, Black Cinema House, they are all so unique, varied, and can get better or worse once they are used.

Q. Which architect has been your biggest influence?

A. Lina Bo Bardi – Italian/Brazilian Architect – Her ability to transform brutalist materials of concrete and steel into flowing, soft spaces that were transformed by nature and users is still influential to me as I am evolving my practice at Latent Design. She designed in a participatory manner that promoted the social and cultural potential of architecture.

Q. What project you’ve worked on are you proudest of the result?

A. One of our first projects at Latent Design, and still current, is the design of a new construction community center in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago for a nonprofit that focuses on young women. When we started the design of the building, one of the early pieces we had to complete was programming. At that time, the organization wanted everything, the kitchen sink and a pool. Yes, a pool.

To be most efficient and to hear all the voices of the organizational stakeholders, we hosted a design strategy workshop where we halved the program and then halved it again through a collaborative process. During the workshop we got into a discussion with the group regarding science labs, as this one a key program piece was to have a space for science. And science to the organization was lab coats, goggles and Bunsen burners. Our team mentioned that a building is a science lab and a neighborhood could be one also. This lead into a year-long development collaboration with the organization and our firm to create a new academic curriculum for them that combines STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math] and the built environment.

The Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies

The Spertus Institute for Jewish Studies

We launched a design/build bootcamp last summer with a focus on public space where the young women did statistical community analysis of vacant properties in their neighborhood, conducted resident surveys, analyzed environmental metrics to inform the design of a new public space that they constructed over a two week period. This project received international press, won the award for Best Placemaking Project in Chicago in 2012 and set an example of youth led transformative community design. The program is continuing on this year with a focus on public health with another design/build component scheduled for this summer.

This small-scale project has created new exposure for the our client, which brings in new revenue and interest to the organization, which allows for the capital campaign for the new center to proceed more rapidly. Our firm believes in the value of design for our partners and clients. Sometimes that value is not always a building, but it will impact the built environment and the systems that influence our society.

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at

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