When I first began the study of architecture at Harvard’s Career Discovery Program (summer 1982), we shopped for drafting and model supplies at a large art supply store in Cambridge named Charrette. When I moved to New York and studied at Columbia (1998-1991), the Charrette store was on Lexington Avenue in the thirties, and we frequently made the trip downtown to purchase supplies. The chain of stores was founded in 1964 by two recent graduates of the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), who had trouble sourcing drafting supplies. The first Charrette store opened in 1964 in Cambridge (not exactly the location I visited), and grew to eleven retail stores in major cities throughout the US. By the mid-nineties, CAD had replaced hand drafting, and big box office supply stores (Staples, Office Depot) made Charrette’s retail business unsustainable, and during the downfall, the company was sold to investors in 1997. Stores were shuttered, and while an effort was made to establish an internet footprint, this, too, eventually failed. Sadly, the charrette.com domain name is now available for purchase. When I asked around the office today, none of the architectural staff remembered the store, or feels nostalgic for the velum, Mylar, or rapidograph pen sets, or even Charrettes Helvetica type logo. But they all know what it means to be on charrette, they are right now experiencing one of our first ever here at DFA.
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, invariably, a student would hop on the cart (en charrette) as it was wheeled by, putting the finishing touches on their drawings or model. When pulling all-nighters in the studio at the end of each semester, architecture students would boast to their non-architecture school friends, that they were ‘on charrette,’ as if being on charrette was code for inclusion in our sleepless 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 out of our office. When we started the firm, we chose to differentiate ourselves from the firms demanding their ‘interns’ work eighty hours per week. During the years immediately following graduate school, one of my best friends was working for the late Charlie Gwathmey. Taking a day off on the weekend to ride the subway to Van Cordlandt Park to play golf was simply 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. The excitement of the job overcame any sense of exploitation; and 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 today is the deadline for our first ever in-house charrette. I am going to pass out this essay when they jump on the cart as they finish their work, so at least they will better understand what I just put them through, and why. Following our Monday morning meeting this week, I was pondering the week’s work and realized that two small, but 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 uncork bottles as appropriate, and we would work with the energy and enthusiasm we recall from our student days. The plan was well received and the charrette has gone smoothly, even if the studio was buzzing at 10pm last evening. Every once in a while it is fun to break the rules and rise to a challenge. While charrettes will not become a regular feature here at DFA, I believe this week was a very positive experience for each of the members of our firm.