Douglas Kelbaugh and the Seattle Community Design Charrettes

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Charrette: "The best way to get the most creative proposals to address the most difficult problems from the most accomplished designers in the most compressed period."

[Douglas Kelbaugh]
Douglas Kelbaugh

Under the leadership of UW architecture professor Douglas Kelbaugh, the UW has gained an international reputation for carrying out community design "charrettes" on a variety of projects related to the public environment in the Seattle region. Kelbaugh's work has been cited and copied around the country and abroad as a model for community design.

"Charrette" is a French word meaning wagon. "En charrette" was a term used by architecture students at the old Ecôle des Beaux Arts in Paris to mean "to draw at the last moment." Working feverishly until the last possible minute, students would sometimes run after and jump onto the wagon that had been dispatched by the professor to the student quarter and continue to draw. In recent years, the term has come to describe a design workshop in which designers work intensively on a problem and present their findings in a public forum.

The Seattle design charrettes began in 1985 as a result of Kelbaugh's interest in applying architectural and urban design concepts to specific problems in the community. The charrette format at the UW quickly evolved into a five-day workshop in which competing teams of advanced undergraduate and graduate students, led by design professionals, work on a selected problem. The charrettes have brought dozens of the world's most distinguished architects, landscape architects, and urban designers to campus. Over 500 students from the College of Architecture and Urban Planning have participated in the events.

The UW charrettes typically deal with an architectural or urban design problem of civic importance. The goal of the process is to put forth feasible and creative solutions to real problems for real clients, as opposed to solving theoretical or academic problems. At the conclusion of the charrette, each team presents its proposed solution to a large audience of students, faculty members, planning professionals, and business and civic leaders.

Past charrettes have included: Where Town Meets Gown: Visions for the University District; Terminal 91 and Beyond: Interventions at Interbay; Returning the Sand Point Naval Air Station to the Community; Seattle Commons: The Housing and Greening of the South Lake Union Neighborhoods; The Kingdome Connection; Public Restrooms for Downtown Seattle; Pedestrian Pockets, An Alternative to Suburban Sprawl; and Housing for the Homeless.

As an outgrowth of one of the design charrettes, Kelbaugh edited The Pedestrian Pocket Book, which became a national best-seller in its field. He also edited and contributed to four other charrette booklets, as well as Housing Affordability and Density: Regulatory Reform and Design Recommendations (1992), a study commissioned by the Washington State Legislature. Kelbaugh's latest book, which treats the charrettes and related theory and policy, is entitled COMMON PLACE: Toward Neighborhood and Regional Design, published by the UW Press in 1997.

Kelbaugh served as chair of the UW Department of Architecture from 1985 to 1993 after practicing in New Jersey and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. His designs have been published in over 100 books and magazines and featured in exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad.

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