Riding in a charrette

During a work meeting, someone referred to attending an “NSF charrette,” and everyone else blinked in confusion until someone asked, “What’s a charrette?”

It turns out that this is a word for “an intense period of design activity” (per wikipedia) and in this case refers to a meeting of minds devoted to focused work on a particular problem or program. Apparently it is often used in the context of land use planning or urban planning.

But the etymology is where it really gets fun. “Charrette” is French for “cart” or “chariot,” and as wikipedia explains:

“It was not unusual for student architects to continue working furiously, at the last minute, on the illustrations for their design presentations, even while riding in the school cart (en charrette) through the streets of Paris en route to submit the projects to their professors. Hence, the term metamorphosed into the current design-related usage in conjunction with working right up until a deadline.

An alternative explanation is that at the end of a class in the studio a charrette would be wheeled among the student artists to pick up their work for review while they, each working furiously to apply the finishing touch, were said to be working en charrette.

In the 16th, 17th, and 18th century when travel took long periods, a Charrette referred to long carriage rides in which politicians and policy makers would be sequestered together in order to collaborate in solving a set problem over the duration of their journey. This origin is most similar to the current usage of the word in the design world.”

(Awesome graphic — wish I could have found some credits for it!)

0 of 1 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Jim said,

    April 6, 2012 at 12:21 am

    Interesting – I’d heard the term charrette used in the context of a software project whose design was fairly solid, but needing people to feel part of the process rather than fighting it later. A secondary benefit is to ferret out any specific issues with the design.

  2. Kevin Turner said,

    April 7, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    I knew this already, but only beat you to it by a week or two. There was a charette hosted at the cohousing center down the street for “the Barn” last week, and the notices for that event were the first I’d heard the term. I read the same thing on Wikipedia as you did, but I’m still wondering why we’re just hearing this term now. Was there some kind of urban planning event that popularized the use of this term recently?

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