en Charrette, and on Charrette™

New Year’s Day morning, having a cup of coffee at our friends’ house, my knee was nervously going up and down under the breakfast table. I knew how much work I had to do this month and how little time I had to do it. I was already panicked. It was going to be an old school charrette.

We hurried home, and I sat down in the chair in my studio, opened up a model I had just received, and got to it.  New Year’s Day, 2010. “Let’s go…”

Yesterday, the 20th, I sent off the last of eleven formal renderings, at 6:30pm.  Between the first of January, and yesterday, I left the house a total of three times, and for no more than an hour and a half each time.  Whew… What a way to start the year. And now I think they want maybe 10 more. Yikes.

Cross-hatched Sky Detail... January 2010

This is about all I can show, a small patch of sky (above), which is maybe an inch wide in the original.

It was a mad charrette. The traditional definition of “en charrette” is that one is “working furiously, continuously, often overnight, up to the very last moment possible, on an architectural design presentation”.  I managed to avoid all-nighters, but I had a run of 16 to 18 hour days that lasted the last two weeks straight.

The idea of a “charrette”  comes from the Beaux Arts schools in mid to late 1800s Paris, where students would work in a mad fury, literally up to the deadline, and would continue to put finishing touches on their drawings even as the “charrette” or cart was brought around and their work was collected.  Cries of “charrette!” warned students of the advancing cart and, with it, the deadline.

My Charrette Tape Ball, about 8 years old, with some "dead soldiers" (pencil points used to their absolute tip)

In the late 60’s a pair of grad students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design convinced their art supply sources to help them set up a shop, on Brattle Street I believe, to sell drafting supplies to architects and architecture students.  It thrived. They named it “Charrette”.  It was the lifeline for nearly every single architect in Boston or Cambridge during the 70s, 80s, 90s…    Swiss, french, german equipment, obscure tools, (then) difficult to find paper, yellow trace, pens, leads, etc.  All to be spun into architecture by practicing or paper-architects.

Enter the personal computer. And after a faltering few years, Charrette is shuttered.

In December I got a call about some emergency work, possibly reworking or redoing a series of illustrations I had previously done for the George W. Bush Presidential Library. The design had been furthered, and so we were thinking there might be a run of illustrations required. I shot over (7 miles away) to Charrette.  They’d been trailing off in terms of attention and service in the past few years, but it was still THE place to get supplies.

As I pulled in, I thought to myself that “someday I’m going to find out that they’ve stopped making these pencils”, the prismas.  [Note the pencils nubs in the photo above. Yes, those are truthfully how far down I manage to sharpen and use them.  I’d tell you how, but I’d have to kill you.  My cubby at CBT had them in the tens,  arrayed like punji sticks along the top of the partition, keeping interlopers at bay].

After arriving at Charrette, in desperate need of supplies, I pulled up to the door where I could see a sign. “CLOSED”.  A small notice explaining that they were done.  That was it.  “Thanks for 33 great years”. Discontinued pencils, hell.  They closed the whole damn store.

I sat there in the car, engine off, briefly stunned. Took it much harder than I would have had imagined.  In the past couple years, Charrette seemed a pain.  You’d pick out something and take it to the counter only to find that they didn’t know the price, or that three were priced differently than the rest.  Or that no one could answer a question.  Still, I couldn’t imagine it vanishing. And yet it was gone.

Still, a big boy, I got over the close of Charrette pretty quickly, and ordered some stuff from Utrecht, delivered to my door.  >shrug<

But yesterday, well yesterday I reached for my tape dots. The box is a dispenser, and as I pulled the paper tape to take another dot, the tape pulled free, clean.  Empty.  No Charrette tape dots.  And then it hit me again… Uh OH.

You see, that tape ball above is about 8 years old.  When I rejoined CBT after a brief stint with a buddy of mine in his shop, that ball was started day-1.  It’s 100% Charrette dots.  Not because of some rigid dictum, but simply because that’s where CBT (and I) got supplies.

It’s deceptively small, say four-and-a-quarter inches in diameter, but very dense, very heavy.  Rather than just stick a used draft dot to it, I stick them on and every now and then roll the thing under my foot to compress it, actually standing on it.  It’s solid, more than a couple pounds.  I calculated (for grins) that it contains some 13,000 used draft dots. Even though it’s not every dot I have used in that time, it still represents more than 3000 drawings (say four per drawing), or about 400 drawings a year.

A guy at CBT, a cubby or two away, got inspired, and started his own tape ball.  Within a month it seemed his eclipsed mine which was maybe two years old at the time. On close inspection, though… a-HA!  He was merely slapping them on with little or no attempt to compress the ball, and keep it dense.  He was entraining air… Minus ten points, my friend.  Gotta stay old-school.  If it isn’t harder than a soft-ball, it’ll be DQ’d.  We architects don’t screw around.

I have a buddy who is searching the inter-tubes for new-old-stock charrette dots for me.  He’s convinced it must go on. Heck, he’s more concerned than I am.

If you remember zip-a-tone, Letraset, Leroy lettering, Keuffel-Esser templates, bar compasses, toilet templates (“hey, you see the one with toilets in elevation?”), begging your boss for a quadruple-aught jewel-tipped Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph, debating the virtues of white-versus-yellow-versus-cream trace, getting high off spraymount, scrounging fome-cor….. well, then, this lament is for you.

Farewell, Charrette.  Thanks, indirectly at least, for my career.


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7 responses to “en Charrette, and on Charrette™

  1. Anonymous

    I have know a Réal Charette, brillant tacher in Ottawa, Canada

  2. Victor

    Thanks for that, a lovely post, and a great phrase (just heard it used by a fellow academic). I think we used to have a Charrette too in downtown Providence.

    (Enviable sharpening technique.)

    • Thanks very much, Victor, on all three counts. I appreciate your comment.

      Thanks for the wake up call, too. I have been too busy lately to post, and your comment has brought me back her, and made me aware I need to post something new. Busiest time of year for me.

  3. Neill

    Thanks for the teaser Jeff! I can’t wait to see the finals. As for the first few weeks in 2010, I suppose never a dull moment. I guess that means you didn’t have time to submit anything for the ASAI competition?


    • Hi Neill.

      I did manage to toss a few entries into the ASAI competition this year, yes. I had picked out a few potential candidates back in December, knowing that I was going to be under a January crunch. The day of the deadline I narrowed it down to a few, and sent them off.

      How about you? You enter anything this year?


  4. William Bryson

    I heard they actually climbed in the cart, laying down washes as it moved along…
    maybe my professors were exaggerating a little…

    • There are a couple stories that claim to be the real origin of the word “charrette”, but who knows. I even heard that a cart was sent through the streets picking up students who worked on the drawings as the cart continued on to the Ecole de Beaux Arts for the presentation. I dunno. If you look at anything done at that school, it is so fine and flawless, there’s no way anyone was drawing with it resting on their lap in a cart trundling through Paris on wooden wheels. hahaha

      I think the simplest explanation makes most sense, that the students are working at school, at their desks in a studio, and hurrying to finish their work before the approaching cart arrived which collected their work. I know, for me anyway, that all my charrettes took place at a desk, and not in a cab on the way to architecture school.

      We’ll never know I suppose. Thanks for the comment.

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