Meet the architecture studio Latent Design, pioneer of change



Latent Design is changing the game in Chicago

The American Midwest has turned the world of architecture upside down. As part of our Next Generation series, we meet Latent Design, a small pioneering practice of big change

“We’re probably still going to suffer from small business syndrome,” says Katherine Darnstadt. The founder of Latent Design – who has worked in several disciplines but always with an emphasis on spatial and racial equity, restorative design and reclaiming access to space for a large population – speaks of the greatest challenge facing her Chicago-based six-person-based company, which she officially founded in 2009. “But it’s something we’ve learned to come to terms with – it’s a quality, it’s not a deficit. “

Being a small company allowed Darnstadt and his team the agility to undertake a wide variety of projects and to use planning, zoning, codes and financing as creatively as most of its peers use AutoCAD and renderings. For her, architecture and urbanism have not only the possibility, but the necessity, to have a profound impact, as seen in the work for clients such as the Mayo Clinic, the Boys & Girls Clubs and the 40 Acres Fresh Market, and projects including community master plans, affordable housing and commercial interiors. For Mayo, Latent Design brought a sense of belonging and permanence to the clinic’s home in the small town of Rochester, Minnesota.

Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Design, photographed by Hugo Yu at the Robey in Chicago

Darnstadt points out that there are only around 200,000 permanent residents in the city, but around three million medical visitors per year. It’s a tension that might have seemed impossible to overcome to anyone else, but which allowed her to creatively open up the city center, linking the drive to be healthy with redesigned and reconfigured outdoor spaces. .

For her 2018 Boombox project, she turned shipping containers into affordable micro-commerce spaces, bringing small businesses to Chicago neighborhoods that she says are “normally excluded from commercial real estate.” She now works with one of those companies, 40 Acres Fresh Market, at a large-scale stand-alone grocery store on Chicago’s West Side. “It’s not a food desert,” Darnstadt says of this neighborhood. “It’s food apartheid. “

Boombox space interior

Such openness and clarity are part of what has made Latent Design a staple for clients deeply invested in real change in the way a variety of populations view the built environment. As a Certified Benefit Corporation since 2013, Latent Design invests in financial and social equity and in the exercise of all kinds of architectural and planning skills to make measurable differences in its hometown of Chicago and beyond.

The team’s work is “really based on looking at those kinds of place-making provocations that reveal a gap or reveal inequity and then turn that into something more permanent,” says Darnstadt. “It’s either an element of policy, an element of architecture or a business model.” They may be a small business, but they are powerful. §

Boys & Girls Clubs

Forty acre project


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