When I first began the study of architecture at Harvard’s Career Discovery Program during the summer of 1982, our drafting and model supply store was named Charrette. Eighteen years earlier, the first Charrette store was opened by two graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) who had trouble sourcing supplies as students. The chain eventually grew to a total of eleven retail stores located throughout the US. When I moved to New York to study at Columbia (1998-1991), the Charrette store was on Lexington Avenue in the thirties, and we often made the trip downtown to purchase supplies. CAD began to replace hand drafting in the mid-nineties, and the big box office supply stores (Staples, Office Depot) made Charrette’s retail business less sustainable. By 1997 the business was imperiled, and investors swooped in. Stores were shuttered and while an effort was made to establish an online footprint, this, too, eventually failed. Sadly, the charrette.com domain name is now available for purchase, something I could not have imagined while I was a student. If I were to ask around the office, most likely none of the architectural staff will remember the store, nor would they feel nostalgic for the velum, mylar, and Koh-i-Noor Rapidograph pen sets, or even for Charrette’s orange Helvetica logo so fixed in my memory. But they all know what it means to be “on charrette,” and every once in a while, I have the opportunity to remind them.
The etymology of being en charrette dates to the 1880’s at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. When assignments were due, the proctors would wheel a cart (charrette) through the studio collecting the students’ drawings and models. According to lore, a student would invariably hop on the cart (en charrette) as it was wheeled by, putting the finishing touches on his drawings or model. When pulling all-nighters in the studio at the end of each semester, architecture students frequently boast to their non-architecture school friends, that they were ‘on charrette,’ as if being on charrette was code for inclusion in a sleep-deprived secret society. I recall the on charrette rite of passage as a defining part of my architecture school education, and I think these memories are shared by most, if not all of my colleagues.
Even though we fondly recall the glory days of school and tell tall tales of days and weeks of sleepless nights and dozing though reviews, I’ve done everything in my power to keep the en charrette concept from our office. When we started the firm, we chose to differentiate ourselves from the firms that demanded their ‘interns’ work eighty hours weeks. During the years immediately following graduate school, one of my closest friends was working for the late Charles Gwathmey. Taking a day off on the weekend to ride the subway to Van Cortlandt Park to play golf was a bridge too far. For me, the baffling thing was that my friend was so happy in his job. He was working on great projects with equally dedicated colleagues, and the excitement of the job overcame any sense of exploitation. As I tell him to this day, “good for him but not on my watch.”
As they say, “rules are meant to be broken,” and occasionally, we will undertake an in-house charrette. Recently, we realized two small and very technical projects were overdue and were getting in the way of other projects. We had missed deadline after deadline for the two projects and they were beginning to feel as if the design and construction documents might never be completed. So I pitched the idea of a three-day charrette. All hands would put aside other work, as best as possible, and work together to finish the document sets for the two projects. DFA would buy lunches and pour wine as expected, and we would work with the energy and enthusiasm we all recall from our student days. The plan was well received, and the charrette went smoothly, even if the studio was buzzing at 10pm and later. Occasionally, it is fun to break the rules and rise to a challenge. It’s also fun to repeat a rite of passage.