We sat down with Annual Conference keynote speaker Katherine Darnstadt, AIA, founder of Latent Design, and discussed Boombox Chicago, Parklets, policy, design, community, and the power of public micro-spaces in a city like Chicago where major infrastructure projects loom large. Since founding the practice in 2010, Darnstadt and her firm have prototyped new urban design systems to advance urban agriculture, support small business, create spaces for youth makers, advance building innovation, and create public space frameworks. Darnstadt is a winner of the American Institute of Architects Young Architects Award and was named in Crain’s Chicago 40 Under 40. She currently teaches at Northwestern University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Darnstadt will be speaking at the 79th Annual Conference & Design Expo in Fort Worth on Friday, November 9.
Question: You’ve done a wide range of projects, from pop-ups to neighborhood branding, to buses with fresh produce. Can you talk a little about the role of form and aesthetics as it pertains to the human-centered design field and merging traditional architectural practices with social activism?
KD- I think what we saw was that in the end, it’s still a design problem. It might not be a building, it might not be permanent, it could be more ephemeral, but they are still design problems, and that’s what architects were trained to solve. I think what we’ve done with some of those projects has not only been influential in terms of the issues we were covering and clients that we were working with, but it was also influential in showing alternative ways of practice that could shift how students and emerging professionals, and even experienced professionals, can think about these types of projects and how they bring them into their firm or become more inclusive in terms of the projects that they go after. So, for me, it wasn’t necessarily trying out a different project type, it was the types of projects that we thought we should always be working on as architects.
Question: How does policy impact the built world and the practice of architecture? Given the political climate, have you witnessed more activism as it relates to public space and design?
KD- Chicago is a unique city overall, where we are built on the vision of Daniel Burnham: “make no small plans.” Where we fall down and could improve more are these micro-projects of creating space, creating a Parklet, creating a mini-park, creating a Boombox. Asking, how do we actually think small? We need to be able to make big plans but do them in small spaces.
In terms of policy, the question becomes, how do we really start to make policy that allows for small projects to excel? We know what zoning setbacks look like to a major building, or a building looks a certain way because of construction codes. That’s understandable, we all face that as architects. But, we need to consider what policy starts to look like when you’re the individual homeowner and you want to do an affordable addition, or you are a new developer and you want to do an affordable two-flat, or you want to start a business but you’re priced out of commercial real estate. How do we manage that policy? Especially in neighborhoods like the South and the West side of Chicago, where people can get blocked out very quickly.
Question: Can you talk a bit about the placemaking projects and how they trained or informed your more recent projects like Boombox Chicago? What is the social and economic impact of projects like Boombox Chicago?
KD- The first Boombox, which was a 100% prototype, went up in Wicker Park in 2015. It was the first time something like this existed, and we had to run a new municipal ordinance to make a tiny structure like that become a reality. Since then, we’ve been on this three-year journey of following the metrics, the information, and the vendors’ incomes. It is through Boombox that we are able to show that there is legitimately a billion-dollar market of microenterprises in the city of Chicago alone that are completely underserved because they’re considered too small, too risky to get a loan or to sign a five-year lease. On the other end, we’re talking with our developer clients and saying why instead of making a 2000-sf space, you start to create 400- or 500-sf spaces? Because you can rent that out faster. For example, next door to that first Wicker Park location that opened in 2015 was a new construction mixed-use building that went up the same year. The building had six residential units, client unit in a large clap storefront, and a commercial storefront. Just this year, 2018, the first tenant moved into that space. Over a three-year period that high-traffic commercial corridor space sat vacant. While at the same time we had over 50 vendors go through our tiny little 150-sf storefront. This highlights the huge disconnect. We have to talk honestly with developers and ask what their responsibilities are to a commercial corridor. When it comes to the vacancy and vibrancy of our commercial corridors, it’s not only on the businesses, it is on the developers as well.