Charrette / Charette / Charet

Tower of Babel Charrette

While in a Studio, or in a class related to Studio work, you may have heard the term “charrette”. What is that? How is that relevant to me as a student of architecture?

Simply put, charrette is any collaborative session in which a group of designers create a solution, or solutions, to a design problem.

“Intense period of design activity”

The term comes from French – the “charrette” means “cart” or “chariot”, and its use in art and design goes back to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 19th century. In academia, the term is often used to describe the final, intense work effort by art and architecture students to meet a project deadline, where students frantically put finishing touches on their work, while proctors wheeled a cart, or “charrette”, to collect drawings. The students’ last-minute attempts to apply the finishing touches to their work came to be referred to as working “en charrette”, or “in the cart.”

In architectural, design and planning practice the structure of a charrette is defined in advance. While the structure may vary–depending on the design problem and the group composition–charrettes often take place in multiple sessions in which the members divide into sub-groups. Each sub-group then presents its work for further discussion and refinement. These charrettes serve as a way of quickly generating a design solution, while integrating the ideas and opinions of a diverse group of people. The general idea of a charrette is to create an innovative (and often time-limited) atmosphere in which a diverse group of designers collaborate to “generate visions for the future”.

Some of the typical charrette methods are:

  • collaborative work
  • multi-disciplinary teams
  • compressed sessions
  • feedback loops communication
  • addressing both details and the whole
  • spanning multiple days of work
  • producing a feasible plan*

However, in a school environment, the purpose and structure of a charrette may vary. While the pressure of an intense design effort conducted in a limited time frame is always there, there are some variables:

  • you may find yourself in a charrette exercise on your own, or with a colleague or two,
  • you may be attacking only a part of a design problem, not dealing with the whole
  • there are usually no interdisciplinary members of the team, clients or public
Charrette session at the architecture academy at the École des Beaux-Arts, circa 19th C.

Charrettes usually end with a public presentation of a sort, and academic ones are no exception. You will be required to present the results of your work and explain them based on set of predetermined objectives. Charrettes are often seen as an integral part of the Design Studio culture of architectural education. We will discuss Design Studio Culture further in another post.

Like anything that has its origins in the distant past, the present-day concepts and use of charrettes is a mix of different factors: tangible results created with a concentrated effort, clinging to traditional values, and a process that, in most case, has little resemblance to the original one (the carts are gone!)

Good luck.

Experiential Section Charrette Presentation, ASC301 Design Studio, Ryerson, IgM 2019.

*Information for this section sourced from the National Charrette Institute, School of Planning, Design and Construction, Michigan State University

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