Back in my commercial design days, we would work on a given project for months, immersing ourselves in the details of the architecture and the furnishings, ultimately having to loose our grip on conceptual matters, issue the drawings, and hope that the contractors in the field would execute our design intent faithfully and accurately. In what was (and still is) a very fast-paced design environment, we would no sooner put the construction documents out “on the street” (for bid) then have to turn our attentions and efforts to the next project in line.
Of course, even though we, as design staff, necessarily went on to the next charrette* the office had continuing installation and construction responsibilities, so we did get to follow our creations to completion, if only through the accounts of our colleagues in the field.
One phrase that sticks in my mind, uttered years ago by one of our production staff after a visit to the job site, was “It’s alive!” (with apologies to the late Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein) in describing what it looked and felt like to see–finally–tradespeople actually building what we had painstakingly conceptualized, drawn and detailed so many months prior.
Well, after having inked the closing documents for the Red House in February of last year, having gone through every conceivable (and some, frankly, inconceivable) hearings and review processes, after refining the design and interviewing/hiring a contractor, THEN getting our building permit this past Wednesday, well . . . it’s ALIVE!
The word charrette is French for “cart” or “chariot.” Its use in the sense of design and planning arose in the 19th century at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where it was not unusual at the end of a term for teams of student architects to work right up until a deadline, when a charrette would be wheeled among them to collect up their scale models and other work for review. Their continued working furiously to apply the finishing touches came to be referred to as working en charrette, “in the cart.” Émile Zola depicted such a scene of feverish activity, a nuit de charrette or “charrette night,” in L’Œuvre (serialized 1885, published 1886), his fictionalized account of his friendship with Paul Cézanne. The term evolved into the current design-related usage in conjunction with working right up until a deadline.
In fields of design such as architecture, landscape architecture, industrial design, interior design, interaction design, or graphic design, the term charrette may refer to an intense period of work by one person or a group of people prior to a deadline. The period of a charrette typically involves both focused and sustained effort. The word “charrette” may also be used as a verb, as in, for example, “I am charretting” or “I am on charrette [or: en charrette],” simply meaning I am working long nights, intensively toward a deadline.