The word "charrette" has two different senses:
  1. A final intense effort to complete a design project.
  2. A preliminary meeting involving stakeholders (citizens, planners, designers, etc.) to brainstorm or to elicit input on a project.
Both senses come from the French "charrette," meaning "small cart." The path the word took from there to the above-mentioned meanings is not completely clear, but the most common story is that repeated by Anu Garg in his A.Word.A.Day entry, that in the 19th century, "professors at the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris collected students' drawings in a cart and the latter would often jump on the charrette to complete last-minute details." The T.R.E.E.S. Project page gives that story with the additional details that "The faculty would assign design problems so difficult that only a few students could solve them in the allotted time. When the time was up, a cart, or charrette, was rolled past the drafting tables to collect the students' work, completed or not."

Stephen Tolkin offered another version of the story on the A.Word.A.Day comments mailing list: 'As an architecture student at Yale in the 70's...our understanding of the derivation of the term "charrette" was that the students at the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris would, like us, work on final drawings until the last minute and would keep working on them while riding on a cart from their lodgings to the school, so as not to waste one precious moment.' (Walker Sloan on the same list notes that 'When victims of the Terror in Paris were carted to the guillotine, they were also referred to as "en charrette", which is perhaps a poetic description of how the students may have felt.') The word is still commonly used this way in architecture schools.

The Neighborhood Charrette Handbook at the University of Louisville suggests that the second sense came about because both the student project work and the consulting meetings are "a short, intensive design or planning activity." The City of Seattle Salmon-Friendly Design Charrette page says, along the same lines, that "A design charrette is an activity where the participants are assigned a very complicated design problem and are expected to bring it as close to completion as possible within a very short time." Most of these handbooks refer to design charettes as lasting a minimum of three days, rather than a single meeting where it would be difficult to cover all the possible topics people could bring up, but two weeks at the absolute longest. This use of the word seems to have originated in the 1960s United States.

Charrette Corporation is a supplier of design supplies and equipment, founded in 1964 by recent graduates of the architecture program at Harvard University. (Their web site gives the same story as Garg's original Word.A.Day entry.) The second sense of the word is used by the National Charrette Institute, which exists to help communities plan improvements with continuing input from all parties involved. Charette Center, Inc. is a firm that provides information consulting services for communities.

Using the French sense of the word, "the Charrette Project is a complex, scholarly, multi-media electronic archive containing a medieval manuscript tradition--that of Chrétien de Troyes's Le Chevalier de la Charrette" hosted at Princeton University and the University of Poitiers in France. Also, "Charrette is a stencil typeface inspired by the lettering on Swiss architect Le Corbusier's drawings," the basis for the computer fonts Modular Stencil and Le Corbusier.

During World War II the USS Charrette (DD-581) was a Fletcher-class destroyer built at Boston Navy Yard in 1942 and commissioned May 18, 1943. It was named for U.S. Navy Lt. George Charrette, who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his deeds during the Spanish-American War and also fought in World War I. The ship was decommissioned January 15, 1947, eventually given to the country of Greece in 1959 and renamed Velos. It was used until 1991 and as of 1998 is "being preserved as a museum at Poros Island near Athens."


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