Kate Darby interweaves many roles deep in Herefordshire’s remote and ancient landscape
Kate Darby’s career tells of a woman starting architecture late, taking time with her children, thinking deeply about her own voice and stumbling across it in a bramble-bound barn on the edge of an ancient common.
She came to prominence on the back of Croft Lodge Studio, an extreme salvage of a waterlogged outbuilding next to her home in Herefordshire. The conservation officer suggested the tumbledown building should be kept; Darby took him at his word and encased the crumbling plaster, rusty nails and all. Even the twists of the dead ivy are preserved; some perhaps holding together the lath and plaster she works alongside on her macbook.
She has been practising from this outer edge of architectural culture in Herefordshire for years. Having worked for small practice Gianni Botsford Architects she moved here from London with young children and David Connor, husband and sometime collaborator – as on Croft Lodge Studio. She kept her architecture work ticking over but now, with children having left home, she is plunging into it again. She works with Connor, whose firm designed shops for Vivienne Westwood and remains separate even while he sits each day alongside Kate Darby Architects. This consists of Darby, a part one assistant, the dog and the stove, all overlooking giant oaks and grubbing black pigs that forage on the common.
How does the small practice find and deliver work? In recent months bids have gone in with sympathetic practices cum friends at Architype or Mole Architects, though none has yet come off. Ex-boss Botsford is a good sounding board as they collaborate on their unit at the Welsh School of Architecture – each making the other just that little bit better. ‘We hold one another to a vision,’ she says. Architect Piers Taylor counts Darby as one of his number in Invisible Studio, a band of go-it-aloners who also like to work together.
A binding force for this disparate group is Studio in the Woods. Last year it was in Ruskin Land in the Wyre Forest, not far from Darby’s studio. Each summer, over an intense weekend, groups gather to design and build their own timber structures. This year Darby commissioned a survey for the studios – of how millable the timber from once-coppiced oaks was. The resulting pavilions vary in shape and size. Three still stand six months on, alongside the muddy ruts of logging machines: a basket-style barricade of pegged branches, a structure of slats holding back saplings to allow a sunlit clearing in the shady forest and a tower of curving oak offcuts.
Ruskin Land started as a small masterplanning project for Darby, looking at sites that house community activities and forest management. John Ruskin was given these acres in 1871 to build an ideal community. It never worked out but the land has taken on a life of its own for Darby as she steeps herself in its history and ecology. She has even brought her masters students here to build another marker for the land of its own timber, an oak grid designed around the path of the sun.
Trees, land and the sun make up Darby’s context. On family land in the south of France, below a house where she has spent many sunny summers, she and Connor are designing around the landscape on a section newly zoned for development, trying to imagine double aspect flats that revel in place unlike their generic suburban neighbours. Earthy concrete grows out of the land while agricultural black sheds perch on top of the flats, a kind of rural penthouse. Darby hopes to sell the land with designs to one of the circling developers and getting chance to design at a far larger scale en route.
There is a very practical, almost industrial edge to Darby’s work. Her designs for a house for a writer, in Herefordshire, stack the modest rooms up a hill, stepping over the long track into the site. She is working through the construction, minimising concrete that would have to be driven along the track, re-using the stones from the existing ramshackle cottage, with variable widths of timber verticals above. There is one other, unusual material, requested by the client: remaindered books. Darby is exploring how they can be stacked, stapled and rendered class 0 with intumescent paint.
She is drawn to the agricultural and industrial, preferring local town Leominster’s workaday industry and plastics factory to Ludlow’s delis and prettiness. She toys with the idea of a studio on the industrial estate and dons boots over precisely belted trousers to set out into the mud. The tough edge to her design is visible at Croft Lodge Studio where she and Connor specified local materials for a new vernacular, starting with steel. Here she used some of the nine steel fabricators in Leominster, where the corrugations of the cladding were pressed in and the steel welded.
At 54, Darby has a quiet assurance that now is her time to seriously make practice work. Her studio has inadvertently been a launchpad. Her concerns for the land, for making in all its forms, and piecing together likeminded individuals, seem to auger well for her.