Tuesday, April 8, 2014


I have been experimenting with the use of the charrette as a teaching tool for a while now.  I find that the concept of the charrette can be an effective way to engage students, and at certain times shake up the rhythm of the studio.

First of all, for those who may be unfamiliar with the term, a "charrette" generally refers to any time intensive design activity.  Architects under an intense time deadline will sometimes refer to be 'en charrette' or 'charette-ing'. It is sometimes used synonymously with the term 'all-nighter', although that is not the context in which I am using it here.

The term charrette can also be used to refer to a group planning or design activity.  We have done those types of charrettes here at COD on several occasions, as shown in the image above from the 'Rebulding Together Aurora' charrette we hosted in 2013.  In these instances, the charrette is a valuable tool to get students and design professionals working in a creative and collaborative environment.

The origin of the term charrette is a derivative of the French term meaning "little cart".  As legend has it, during the time of the origin of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, intructors would travel from studio to studio throughout Paris, collecting final assignments on a small horsedrawn cart.  Sometimes, in the panic of a deadline, a student would be know to jump on to the cart while the project was being collected to put the finishing touches on their work of art.  Hence the term 'en charrette', or 'in the cart'.

In the context of my design studio, I am using this term to refer to short, intense, sometimes collaborative, design activities.

I like using charrettes for several reasons.

First, charrettes get students moving.  Whenever I feel that there is a lull in the studio, I consider a charrette to amp up the productivity.  This week I planned a charrette for the first class after spring break, knowing that there would be a significant (post spring break Monday morning) sluggishness in the studio.

Second, by increasing the pressure with a short deadline, these activities get students working quickly.  Sometimes, I feel that designing without thinking too much can lead a student to work more intuitively, less formulaic, and thus be more likely to make that ever elusive intuitive leap that is so critical in design.  It is so easy for all of us to get stuck in a design, overthinking every move.  By forcing students to work quickly, there is no time to overthink or get stuck in a design problem.  Obviously this type of quick, intuitive methodology is not always appropriate, given that I want students to have a well considered design solution. It is effective strategically implemented at times when students are already prone to getting stuck in their own designs.

This week I tried another variation of this method by having students trade projects, and thus develop a project designed by one of their colleagues.  The students hate this of course, but I like the results.  My goal with this is simple - to get students looking at the work with new eyes, with the intention of revealing design alternatives and potentials.  I find that students are often much more open minded to change, and can more effectively identify areas that need to be developed in someone else's work rather than their own project.  It is human nature after all, that the longer we work on a creative project the more we begin to work with blinders on, failing to recognize opportunities in our own work.  As we invest ourselves more in the creative process it becomes harder and harder to question the work and rethink alternatives.  Students see the critique in other's projects easier than they do in their own work.

So on Monday, the first class after spring break, I had my students move one desk to the right, and work on a project that is not their own.  I asked them to identify the key concepts in the work, think about how to communicate these ideas both through writing and drawing, help their peers draw concept diagrams and write concept statements, and ultimately suggest opportunities for development.  The students had 90 minutes to create quick hand drawn boards, and then at the end of the studio we pinned up the work and discussed each student's critique.  We still need to work on graphic communication (perhaps the subject for the next post), but the student to student critiques were excellent. 

And maybe (hopefully) - each student will now be able to return to their own project with a fresh set of eyes and an open mind for developing their work creatively.  Perhaps there will even be some intuitive leaps.