charrette; Thought to originate from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 19th century, the word charrette is from the French for “cart” or “chariot”. It was not unusual for student architects to continue working furiously in teams at the end of the allotted term, up until a deadline, when a charrette would be wheeled among the students to pick up their work for review while they, each working furiously to apply the finishing touches, were said to be working en charrette, in the cart. Émile Zola depicted such a scene of feverish activity in L’Œuvre (serialized 1885, published 1886), his fictionalized account of his friendship with Paul Cézanne. Hence, the term metamorphosed into the current design-related usage in conjunction with working right up until a deadline.
Today was not a work day.
In a blatant act of civic engagement, I joined a diverse crowd of City officials, architects, developers, community activists, property owners, and a couple of reckless aesthetes to bring our collective talents to bear on what is known as the Bronzeville District.
Milwaukee’s Bronzeville district was the center of African-American life pre-war. It provided an active social center to the community and fostered a near-middle class population. But the power structure treated the area as disposable when the freeways were established, severing the area from other parts of the city; the eventual departure of well-paid blue collar jobs served to nearly destroy the area. Houses were abandoned and torn down, leaving blocks looking like Shane McGowan’s teeth.
The teams were tasked with development of conceptual development plans for six sites in the area. I called a couple of associates who I had worked with in the past to join in.
The charrette format was used last June, focusing on an area just north of the Bronzeville district we worked on today. In that case, the groups focused on seven potential development sites; since then, five of them have moved forward in the planning process. A remarkable success rate. Most of the participants had felt that if one site made progress it would be a success.
It wasn’t a work day, not really. Work was done; ideas generated; the day was full. The Mayor stopped by. We got a free lunch out of the deal.
A nice lady from NPR interviewed me for the Wisconsin radio (she didn’t ask for a release. Aren’t they supposed to ask for a release? Ahh, no matter, architects are attention whores anyway). The organizers will be publishing a report in the next few months, and the City will be building off the products of this day. when I got home, I was pretty much talked out, and mixed a nice beverage while catching up on voice mails and emails.
As with the prior charrette, if one or two of these sites moves forward to development, the event will be a success. The potential of all the sites is such that they ALL should move forward, but we know that that is not how things work; but after decades of difficulties and neglect, the area is ripe for renewal. In a more just world, it would already be a thriving destination.
Although the architects involved will be receiving a smallish stipend, I can’t call it work. It was too much fun.