Putting our downtown vision(s) to paper

For at least 10 years or so, we have wondered

about the word “charrette.”

While we’ve certainly understood the concept – the short, intense design sessions were among the highlights of the community’s comprehensive planning process some years ago, yielding sweeping drawings that gave visual representation to “the island of the future” – the term does not readily betray its meaning or etymology.

What is a “charrette” – a little charade? So arcane was the term, that it once prompted a lengthy and heated argument between this writer and a previous Review editor, who forbade its use in the newspaper on the grounds that “no one will know what it means.” The writer, at least, had somewhat more faith in the erudition of the readership, even if we couldn’t say with precision where the word came from.

Well, we finally have an answer – more on this in a moment. More significantly, islanders can again see a charrette in action this week. As part of the Winslow Tomorrow downtown planning process, the city is assembling five teams of architects, urban planners, designers and other thinkers for an intense, three-day drawing session. Their charge: to give form to the many design options implicit in our downtown. Where might new pedestrian connections go? How big might redeveloped buildings get, and how would they relate to the streetscape around them? Can a parking garage be tastefully integrated with a pedestrian-friendly center? And what about gathering spaces and connections to the waterfront?

How might Winslow, in a word, evolve? As we discuss our many “visions” for downtown, this exercise should provide a more common visual idea of what we’re talking about.

Two public workshops are slated, from 1-4 p.m. this Friday and again from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday in the council chambers at City Hall. The lay citizen can mingle with members of the Winslow Tomorrow Community Congress, and take docent tours into the rarefied air of the charrette itself, where the assembled minds will be hard at work with pencils and paper. The tangible results will then be presented in a public forum April 9, for all to behold and consider.

It occurs to us that when people fret over changes to our downtown, they are really concerned with two concepts: uses and physical space. While no one can guarantee which businesses might come and go – as Winslow Hardware’s demise emphatically illustrates – the charrette may take some of the alarm out of the spatial possibilities.

But back to word origins, which the Winslow Tomorrow staff correctly anticipated would leave a few scratching their heads. Say they: “Architecture has been taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris for hundreds of years. In the early days, students worked in studios, or ateliers, scattered across the city. When their design projects were due, the school sent a horse-drawn cart -- a charrette -- to collect their drawings. Students of design were the same then as they are now. They were never fully satisfied with their work, and were known to jump on the cart or run along side it and continue drawing, so that they were, in fact, ‘en charrette.’ Today, charrette is used to describe any intense, on-the-spot design effort.”

You learn something every day. Stop by the Winslow Tomorrow charrette – Charrette! Charrette! Charrette! – this week, and learn more still.

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