What is a Charrette?


LCA Charrette, Park City, Utah 2003


Two men and a woman walk into a bar carrying a pizza in a cardboard box. They sit down, take the pizza out, turn the box over and start drawing on it. After a couple of hours of discussions and drawing they have a proposal for a revised neighborhood plan. They have just completed a ‘charrette’.

Charrettes are just about that simple. The pizza box is optional.The charrette originated in Paris where architecture students at the Ecole des Beaux Arts were given a design assignment to complete over the weekend. The finished design was placed in a sketchbook, and the sketchbook was placed in the small cart (charrette) making the rounds through the streets of the Quartier Latin until midnight Sunday. Anyone failing to place the sketchbook in the charrette failed the assignment.

Florida architect Andrés Duany adapted the charrette to community design processes in the 1980s. Bill Lennertz was his right-hand man at the first charrette in The Kentlands, and at hundreds more that followed. Duany borrowed from the Ecole the concept of a set time limit. By 2001 Lennertz opened the National Charrette Institute (NCI) in Portland to train professionals in the charrette process.

There have been many imitators, but two features of the urbanist or NCI charrette remain defining characteristics:

  1. The charrette team consists of a specially selected group of design professionals that works on site over a seven day sojourn.
  2. A particular urban theory or methodology is applied at the charrette. The planning and urban design is anything but willy nilly. Thus, a considerable amount of time is spent ahead of time preparing parties on site for a successful charrette.

There has also been much confusion over charrettes:

  1. The charrette is only a process that delivers a product.
  2. The product or outcome is a plan. An urban design plan that today it is often referred to as a “Form Based Code”.
  3. The instruments used in the charrette for shaping the final plan are nothing more than a set of time tested design principles, some harking back to the earliest practices in western urbanism. Some are older than Rome.

Thus, the woman and the two men entering the bar in the opening of this post were not your run of the mill tavern patrons. They were trained in urban design and likely shared diverse backgrounds in city design, including: architecture, civic engineering, planning, landscape architecture, transportation, urban land economics, and human-scale urbanism. In a real-life event, they would have completed a walking tour of the site before picking up the pizza. They would have also spent a considerable amount of time in advance understanding the place, the people of the place, its governance and economics. Finally, they would be well-versed in future trends and the baseline issues in sustainability.

Of course, a three-hour charrette in a pub might only be suitable for a very small, and possibly privately owned site. Neighbourhood charrettes typically require a full seven days to unfold. According to Bill Lennertz, a minimum of three feed-back loops a required where the community, and the local bureaucracy, can have meaningful input reflected in the final product.


1 thought on “What is a Charrette?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s