Urban Design Profiles

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How is an urban designer defined? Recently the role of the urban designer has become distinguished from the architect or planner as urban design has taken a very important role in public space. The approach of the urban designer has thus changed to think holistically, where the focus has shifted to creating public spaces that increase the capacity to support equitable and well-designed environments. The comparison and contrast between two design professionals will help to better understand the role of the urban designer: Le Corbusier, who is a more traditional urban designer, and Katherine Darnstadt a non-traditional urban designer who is practicing in Chicago Illinois. We will specifically look at the comparison of their design approach, how the designer intends their project for public use, and also how their work has impacted society. The study of these two designers will begin to re-frame the role of the urban designer.

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Katherine Darnstadt

Katherine Darnstadt is a young practicing architect in Chicago Illionis who has begun to re-define urban design. She has taken a very humble approach to the design of public space in an effort to support equitable spaces for communities. The American Institute of Architects called Darnstadt “”a shining example of the next generation’s citizen-architect”” (Fixsen, 2015). She is the current and managing principal of Latent Design, a small architecture practice that was conceived in the wake of the 2008 great recession. Katherine, who had just been laid off, a newly wed, and also pregnant, thought that having a small architecture firm would keep her afloat through the economic down turn, of which it did (Fixsen, 2015). She has now been recognized by the AIA from the Young architect of the year award in 2014 and has also been distinguished on the 40 under 40 list in the Chicago Business Journal. Her firm works at the intersection of design and community development in order to create social, economic and environmental impact (Latent, 2017).

Katherine Darnstadt has begun to re-define the role of the urban designer and there contribution to society. Her firm utilizes the skills of architects, product designers, graphic designers, and also construction managers becoming a collective group working toward the better design of cities. She stated in an interview with architectural record “”Design can validate initiatives and ideas. And it can highlight where policies and systems are failing, we design for gaps”” (Fixsen, 2015). Katherine believes that architecture can extend beyond buildings and that the true design of our urban environments is the space between here or there (Darnstadt, 2014). She sees the scrapes left-over in the urban environment by in-effective systems are the most crucial part of communities, in which these spaces become a the common thread. She also believes that by making design visible we can begin to change the perception of our communities. Stated in her TED X talk; Design in the foil of our cities and it reflects the latent condition of our environments (Darnstadt, 2014). She goes on to include that when designing spaces we must understand the context before we can move forward (Darnstadt, 2014). By understand the inequities within the space we can begin to make informed decisions about the design. Additionally design then becomes a verb or action, in which new systems of architecture can reverse the inequities the existing framework or systems.

The work created by Katherine Darnstadt and her associates at latent design epitomize urban design, as they work to reinvigorate underutilized public spaces and combat the prevalent issues of our society and communities. One project that exemplifies these ideals and that is literally designed between the gaps is the Boombox. The Boombox takes on the typology of a micro-store that looks to make accessible storefront space for small businesses that is also cost effective (Rodkin, 2018). This allows smaller businesses to sell their products in prime storefront locations that were previously seen as inaccessible based on economic feasibility. The reason that the Boombox is able to bridge this gap is based on its sized and flexibility to accommodate multiple vendors and locations. It utilizes the structure of a storage container to create a climate controlled volume which increases ease of transportation (Rodkin, 2018). Furthermore the micro-store creates economic diversity because the space it’s utilized by smaller businesses, which in turn also creates stability within the Chicago economic market (Rodkin, 2018). The new urban design typology created by Katherine and her teams has challenged the conventional store typology, creating an equitable solution for small business growth and diversity in Chicago.

Project Boombox is a small portion of the continuing project called Activate Chicago. Activate Chicago is an ongoing program, in partnership with Latent design and the Chicago department of transportation, to create events with the city of Chicago to increase community and economic engagement in underutilized public space (Activate). The majority of the public sites have ended up in the possession of the Chicago department of transportation when streets were added to the grid and other were closed and most spaces receive little to no activity (Byrne 2017). Project activate usually introduces events as design completions that target these un-used public space in an attempt to beautify or solve existing community problems. In 2012 the competition yielded a vertical play structure and garden that integrated into a part of larger housing development garden (Latent, 2017). Another competition in 2014 created a temporary installation in the community of Pilsen, set forth by Jameson Skaife and Eric Koffler the design unitlized seating elements in a larger mural (latent, 2017). The initiative set by Katherine and hers associates in an attempt to create community engagement through activation of city space is key example of why she is a perfect example of an urban designer.

Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier who’s original name was Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, is characterized usually as an architect, urban planner, and artist. He was one of the most influential designers of architecture and urban design in the modernist period. His conception of the raumplan and architectural manifesto have completely changed the way buildings are designed and constructed today (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 14-15). His works ranging from Villa Savoye to Unite Habitation have been extensively studied and have also influenced the minds of many decades of designers. Additionally his master planning of urban cities pushed the boundaries of innovation in his attempts to design the future and increase the quality of life for people in urban spaces. Le Corbusier’s principals of urban design encouraged the quality life, especially for the working class, this can be seen in his voisin plan of paris or in Unite Habitation (Scully, 1969 pp 167-168).

Le Corbusier’s fundamental ideas towards urban designer include the decongestion of the downtown or center of cities, the increase densification of living, the increased capacity of circulation and the increased area of landscaped spaces (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 316-317). His principals and urban planning proposals also challenged the classism structure of urban cities and instead tried to adopt a system that was based on family size (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 316-317). These designer principals are most evident is the Corbusier’s plan of 3 million people in 1922, in which the urban design of an ideal city is expressed (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 316-317). Corbusier was headed to a new ideal city that reduced the cluster of tightly packed urban fabric and instead opened the organization to alleviate the confines from the urban fabric. His urban design introduced ideas of biophilia and encouraged the dissociation of the automobile before this was popular. High density living eradicated urban sprawl and reduced commuting distances to and from the city.

One of Le Corbusier’s famous urban designer proposals was that of the Radiant City or la Ville Radieuse. The designed was very forward thinking for 1935 in which he proposed that all the building in his plan be lifted off the ground to allow for one hundred percent of the ground area to be utilized by the public (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 332). His radiant city strove to create a complete disconnect with the pedestrian the automobile in to increase human health and safety. Additionally the density of living unites or unite’s and skyscrapers would be increased and the compact density of streets and corridors would be widen to allow for external green space for recreation and non-congested circulation (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 332).

I figure printed in 1935 shows the density of the Radiant city in comparison to New York, Paris and Buenos Aires, all of which completely succumb to the openness of the Corbusier’s plan (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 332). Large scale models were produced in order for people really understand the gravity of the proposal.

The principals and ideas of the radiant city soon took on reality when in 1952 Corbusier began to design and plan the city of Chandigarh in India. The small city, was planned as a horizontal city, with the majority of its main buildings made of concrete and unitizing a brise soleil along the elevations to combat the hot and humid summers (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 197). The plan of the Chandigarh created much open space to allow for further expansion of the city as Corbusier anticipated the event of sprawl, due to the automobile and India’s inadequate transportation infrastructure (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 197). The most monumental piece of design within Chandigarh is that of the esplanade which connects parliament to high court (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 229). This corridor give the formalistic gesture of the design principals used in the creation of Chandigarh; the modulor, the harmonic spiral, the daily path, the jeu di soleil, the open hand, etc. (Boesiger & Girsberger, 1999, pp. 229). This traditional and formalistic gesturers give the unknown preseption of urban design.

Identification of Correlating and Dissimilar Ideals

Le Corbusier and Katherine Darnstadt are both very similar urban designers in the sense that they both respond to the delinquencies of society through design. Their responses are very different and are determinate of time period and stylistic approach. For instance in the 1930s when the radiant city was conceived the idea of large skyscrapers blocking out the sun was a concern to many urban dwellers. Hence the reason why Corbusier’s design of increased dwelling density and widen circulation corridors. However Corbusier was also looking ahead to other issue of urban cities including the circulation of the automobile, urban sprawl and access to public green space, all of which are main problems that our society faces today. Much of Corbusier’s work has been a response to these concerns; Katherine’s work is also a response to economic and social inequality in our current society. The Boombox is a response to an inequity of public space use and also an economy that doesn’t support small business. Katherine approach to allocating flexible micro-stores for small business creates a more diverse economy and utilizes otherwise unused public space.

The approach used by Le Corbusier and Katherine Darnstadt in response to society is much different from a stylistic perspective. Corbusier is very formalistic in his design, as shown in the design of Chandigarh, India we can see how his abstraction of principals superimposed onto the esplanade is his way of communicating his response. Katherine, on the other hand has a very functional and also humble approach to design. In her ted talk, she stated that have a building to call her own design was not important, rather she is more interested in the impact that her design has made. Between both urban designers however you can see functional design; we can see this in Corbusier principals of universal design and his extensive use of concrete. Katherine’s use of recycled materials like storage containers as a means of structure for the Boombox gives a functional approach to here design.

Corbusier and Katherine are both interested in creating positive change through innovative design. Both designers have created new typologies of urban design to radically change and promote positive health in urban dwellings. For Kathrine it is seen as being a societal equity of urban space while, Corbusier’s was looking to create new ideas for urban principals for cities through his urban planning proposals.

Katherine and Corbusier are both generalized as architects because of their professional practice. Corbusier is seen a more traditional designer, because of his design approach and traditional practice within architecture firms. However Katherine is seen more as a non-traditional urban designer because of her involvement with new building typologies and humble approach to design.


Activate! Chicago. (n.d.). Retrieved October 14, 2018, from https://www.activate-chi.org/

Boesiger, W., & Girsberger, H. (1999). Le Corbusier 1910-65. Basel: Birkh user.

Byrne, J. (2017, March 03). Emanuel’s ‘people plazas’ program struggling to achieve liftoff.

Retrieved October 14, 2018, from https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-rahm-emanuel-people-plazas-met-20170226-story.html

Darnstadt, K. (2014, December 12). Interstitial Systems. Retrieved October 14, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aj1PcU4GhNU (posted by TED)

Fixsen, A. (2017, March 03). Katherine Darnstadt. Retrieved October 14, 2018, from https://www.architecturalrecord.com/articles/12321-katherine-darnstadt?v=preview

Latent Design Corporation. (2017). Latent Design. Retrieved October 14, 2018, from https://www.latentdesign.net/

Rodkin, D. (2018, June 07). How one architect is helping neighborhood startups open their first shops. Retrieved October 14, 2018, from https://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20180607/ISSUE01/180609908/architect-darnstadt-turns-shipping-containers-into-micro-stores

Scully, V. J. (1969). American architecture and urbanism. New York: Trinity University Press. doi:70-76793″

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Urban Design Profiles. (2019, Jun 24). Retrieved November 30, 2022 , from

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