Charettes of Fire

Featured in the latest issue of Cambridge Architecture Gazette, rhp’s Tom Foggin explains that we shouldn’t be afraid to think outside the box, and talk about our ideas.

"I first encountered the term “charrette” whilst studying in France as part of a student exchange programme; my colleagues painted a romantic picture of medieval Parisian architects running through the cobbled streets pushing carts, or charettes, loaded with submissions for a design competition for King Louis XIII, shouting “charrette!” to warn others out of their way, as they rushed to submit their work.

Whatever the true origin of the word, today we often talk of a charrette as the period of work leading up to a deadline, when the sparks of creativity are brightest and designers talk in the studio or share ideas over a coffee (or something a little stronger).

Often the greatest work comes out of discussion: concepts evolve through development and refinement, and even Eureka moments are often ideas that have been brewing intangibly in the background until a conversation or confrontation crystallises it. Steven Johnson refers to the “liquid network” of innovation [1] which comes about from conversing with our contemporaries.

In the context of Cambridge, I wonder if we have lost the art of the charrette. In this period of unprecedented investment there are numerous projects focusing on infrastructure, congestion relief, housing, research and healthcare campuses, yet there appears to be a distinct absence of creative discourse.

At rhp we hold sessions every Friday to encourage members of the studio to broaden their horizons, with discussion topics ranging from technical aspects of breather membrane detailing to wider conversations about the impact of, for example, the City Deal investment. Following the publication of the Mitcham’s Corner SPD and public consultation we ran a small charrette to develop ideas for this critically undervalued area of the city where traffic dominates.

In a short time, concepts evolved ranging from sustainable public transport networks and affordable housing, to pushing the ring road underground, creating new public plazas and pedestrian bridges to Jesus Green.

Charrettes offer opportunities to talk freely, propose concepts and build ideas together in a way which is not always possible when working alone. Not every idea will be practical or technically feasible, but there is no way to tell without exploring it, and talking through an idea with others often leads to something even better.

Architects and other design professionals are trained to solve problems and find solutions to complex challenges. Just imagine, if creative professionals were invited to a charrette encompassing the whole city with the kind of budget currently on the table, what could we achieve in Cambridge?"

[1] Steven Johnson, S. 2010, Where Good Ideas Come From, video recording, TED, viewed 10 September 2016.

Charettes of Fire
© Tom Foggin
Charettes of Fire
© Matt Plummer
Charettes of Fire
© Ed Todd
Charettes of Fire
© David Ward