Participatory architecture through the charrette

No two clients or projects are quite alike, which explains those VOA nomads living in your office this week.

Participatory architecture is the philosophy we have here at VOA, which means that the client plays a critical role. There’s some precedent for this. One can see this in the architecture that came out of the turn of the century. It’s why all of Daniel Burnham’s buildings look different. The Santa Fe looks like the railway, People’s Gas looks like the government building, and the Chicago Symphony is very classical. This contrasts with the contemporary idea of celebrity-driven design, where one expects to get what the architect did on the last round. For centuries however, architecture was by nature participatory. Up until the last 150 years or so, the person who occupied the place was part of its design and building process. Congregations were active in building cathedrals.

In participatory architecture, we believe the architect or designer and the client can reach a consensus and find a partnership. The individualized outcome should fit the client just right. But how do you get the work done?

The businesslike approach, designing to a budget per square foot often forces us to back into ideas, rather than starting with one we love. If you take the business approach, the project rotates around one thing, usually the budget.

The other idea says that we have to achieve great things and great dreams. When we have a charrette, we establish these dreams. We don’t worry so much about the business constraints, because we know that they’re probably not going to change much, and they’re going to be layered onto this. In our approach, you’re asking “Can we reach these zenith dreams, these concepts, and achieve them?” Once you have selected the dream, you examine three or four alternative ways to do it. When the pricing comes in, you do the one that matches up. You can adapt the dream to the budget limitations.

One way to create this dream is to design to the environment, to principles, to what the Design God whispers in the designer’s ear. Every now and then, one might get a gem or a masterpiece that way.

The other approach is this idea that through the design you get at the spirit or soul of something. Louis Sullivan said that ‘Form follows function,’ which basically means that if the function is praying, it should look like a church. It’s about having the essence or spirit realized within your design. So what is the way to achieve this and what is the process that we should use to get it?

The way to find that spirit in our case has been the idea of charrette. The word comes from the Beaux-Arts in France, where architecture students would be furiously finishing their projects while a cart was being wheeled among them to collect their work. Their last minute work was called ‘en charrette.’ It’s this idea that you have this kind of passionate approach to getting the best.

When we started doing it, we found that you had to match it up to the business world. In fact, it matches up very well. It means we can consolidate the project and try to get these dreams, but also produce answers very quickly, rather than in six months. Within three or four days of this heavy, round-the-clock focus group, we can say which of the three dreams is the best one that could be realized, price it, then achieve it understanding its potential and limitations. The charrette also offers an opportunity to put some personality back into modern spaces that can sometimes be cold and impersonal.

When we do it best, we go to the site. We want to design in an environment that is conducive to collaboration and free thinking. We can do that better in the client’s home without our day-to-day distractions in the way. The client comes in and out of it every few hours, or every other day and we have meetings. We camp out right there or in a hotel close by.

A charrette itself requires a design relative to the anticipated objectives and time available. Sometimes you have a day or half-day, but if you’re there for three days, at the beginning, you spend the first day visioning and putting these ideals in place. Then you go after the project and try to solve it within the context, but you superimpose these new ideals over the historical profile that the client provides for you. By the end, you form a new personality, and you want that to be amplified in the design; you want to be able to feel the personality come out in the design. That’s what we like to do.

As years went by, certain elements have become essential to the charrette. Originally, ideas and concept sketches were pinned up, or we’d use tables and walls, and the big board came out of that. Eventually, the only thing that was consistent was the big board.

Knights have their swords and shields; we have these big foamcore boards, and our markers and tracing paper. We build a team of sharpshooters—those good with people, drawings or model building as well as idealistic young designers to create a balance that ensures great chemistry. We bring as much information to that ‘movie set’ as we can, everything we know about the client, the site, the context, the budget, and history. Eventually, you drop in the new profile that matches up with their history, goes to the new world, and aligns with the parameters. Day one, you stockpile all the data on the side and say, “We’ll be coming back to that.”

And then you begin with these sessions that are really game playing. With some clients there’s some hesitancy to open up, in which case we do a game where they give certain answers, then go to a different room and try to assemble some pictures with a metaphor, things that relate to the project.

Later we added vision sessions. I first encountered visioning at a lecture I had seen in Ann Arbor related to child care centers and picturing our childhoods. We took that model and practice and projected it on all projects—the idea that you could go back to a certain place in time and retrieve information. With visioning, you are creating new ideals for your project that would be buddied up with the mission statements of those particular companies. You peel away the layers on someone’s heart and soul, and maybe intellect in terms of the imagination. It broadens the project beyond a work plan, a schedule, assignments, questions/answers and budgets. You create a new kind of personality profile for the company inspired by things learned the vision session.

One important principle in the charrette is that all ideas will be aired. It gives airtime to all good ideas, even from the youngest at the company. The process creates a higher level of trust on the client’s part, because you went through this common experience, almost like you went on a boat trip for a couple of days. You went to Woodstock; you didn’t forget that, did you? It’s almost like teambuilding.

On the first day, you start with everyone introducing themselves, perhaps saying something personal about themselves, and what they hope to get out of the visioning session. Eventually the discussion becomes more free form like sports, where you’re passing the ball; that’s what the charrette is all about. We’ve got music in the background, and we’re going around the table talking, with various things happening, and then we regroup. Within that atmosphere, people tend to let their guard down and it can be transformative.

We believe in this process so much that we camp out at the client’s place. And if we’re at their place, we can make constant reference to their old world, to make sure that the things they find precious are being guarded, but the things that don’t work are discarded.

We gain credibility by showing projects we’ve done, telling their stories, explaining how those charrettes went, and how the project’s personality emerged. Hearing this, the client aspires to deliver a project of equally high quality. This raises the stakes and they become invested in the idea of getting to this new world: The Promised Land.

The more personalized it can be, and the more you can have people reveal how they feel about it personally, the more they become attached to the rest of the team. So you start out with the component that separates everyone. For the creative group at a consultancy, we bought T-shirts for everybody to take them out of their business role. We went to the park and sat on carpet squares, closed our eyes, and talked about the project.

By the second day typically, we are drawing and sketching, analyzing mock-ups and sharing them, looking at different alternatives. We can change the group composition and setting to suit the goals of the project. If appropriate, for example, we can incorporate some progressive ideas that move away from the notion of a private office, or territory.

By the third day, we’re re-showing people these ideas and showing them how you can get things that they didn’t expect in the projects. In some cases, we make models or do extra drawings. Often, if they have people in their office who want to work, they help and become part of the team. In the end, we put on a show, revealing the result of this work. We may invite a specific audience or perhaps expand it to everybody in the firm. We also electronically consolidate it, publish it in book form, and distribute it. This allows others who are further away to feel its energy.

Clients tend to have a high level of satisfaction with all of this because they feel they have a stake in the ownership of the design. When it’s a good design, and the group helped to fight for things and we got them, the client feels as though they have caused it by being able to push or help develop the idea. Because this charrette experience is so rewarding and different, sometimes we celebrate at the end of the project.

The client is also able to be more selective about how they spend money. I find that people fight for the things they believe in. It’s not always the front area, but seldom are people uninterested in giving a good first impression, and prioritizing that means trading other things out.

The charrette process is built around social interaction and requires really strong personalities. I came here 23 years ago, and the charrette process was full speed with VOA founder Wilmont “Vic” Vickrey at that time. Vic was always a troubadour, a storyteller, he was always powerful in the charrettes. I’m probably a little more rugged, or cowboy-like. I want everybody to close their eyes, to draw, to involve the kids. I’m very familiar with the idea of rowdy social interaction: being able to say what you want, help people back on their feet and reassure them that we’re on safe ground.

At VOA, we believe in this so strongly we even have internal charrettes and visioning at the office to pull together ideas to win a job. We did this recently to compete in a full-blown competition with 11 other firms to win a major project in Chicago. We won the business.

When we designed our Chicago office space, the interiors group designed it around the charrette idea. We always want design to be a kind of nomadic experience–that you bring it with you, you surround yourself with it. It’s on the board, you put it up. It’s very tactile and real. The more we can actually build a big picture of what our dream is, the better chance we have of executing it and delivering it.

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