Faced with the “charrette culture”, will architects succeed in reinventing their profession?


The question of the “cart culture” may come up regularly in the media, be the subject of a ministerial working group and measures in the national higher education schools of architecture, it remains a difficult subject when we discuss the architects professional model.

As I finished writing this article and discussed its content with my sociologist colleagues, I was struck by their reactions to this practice of working until exhaustion: “watch where you step I was told. As if the evocation of the “charrette” of architects was a waste of time, dangerously attacking one of the key identity traits of the professional body. Is an architect without a “cart” really an architect?

It is therefore both from a personal point of view that I would like to start the discussion, because I was charrette between 2004 and 2010 to obtain the title of State architect. But also from the point of view of the teacher-researcher that I have become, which allows me to better understand how the “charrette” structures an identity and a professional group, and more recently, to observe how new graduates hijack it, reinventing their profession.

The other side of a “passionate profession”

A tradition inherited from the Fine Arts in the 19th century and  perpetuated in the project workshops of architecture schools, the “charrette” consists of working intensely to the point of depriving yourself of sleep to complete a project, before presenting it to your teachers. in order to be assessed.

Between the pride of belonging to a defined social group and the physical and mental suffering, two student camps rub shoulders in a project workshop. If the cart selects by force the most tenacious things (or those most subject to the institutional system?), it excludes those who do not adhere to this culture and who do not resist such pressure. The practice is indeed risky in terms of health and I have vivid memories of preventive medicine visiting us after being alerted by suicide attempts, finding there students with low blood pressure.

The “charrette” consists of working intensely until depriving yourself of sleep to complete a project. Shutterstock

In 2018, the National Union of Architecture and Landscape Students alerted to the malaise in the National Schools of Architecture. In their survey of more than 5,000 students, two-thirds confirm the existence of this “culture of the cart” , considered by the majority as “exhausting, trying and trivialized”. More than a third of students said they slept “less than four hours” a night during the week before a big meeting. A situation that prompted the Ministry of Culture to set up a working group in 2019 with players in the sector, dedicated to the issues of well-being and student health in schools and which also targets discrimination, gender-based violence and harassment. and sexual.

The charrette meets in the agencies, selecting the most resilient a second time, and this time generally excluding women from this mode of organization. The first limit of the passion profession is indeed the workload and working hours. More than half of the respondents to the ministerial survey say they have to work “occasionally” on Saturdays, 40% can occasionally work on Sundays. They are also numerous (65%) to be able to do it from time to time “between 8 p.m. and midnight” or even “between midnight and 5 a.m.” (20%) or even “between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m.” (16%).

What was a common practice at school becomes more difficult in the professional world and many graduates finally wonder about the possible reconciliation between the practice of architecture and a social and family life.

The threat of insecurity

The second limit to the exercise of a passion profession is economic. Architects are among the lowest paid liberal professions in France, almost three times less than legal and accounting activities.

This economic precariousness is linked to several factors. First, an artist’s image inherited from the Renaissance refers to other actors in the living environment and to the general public as a disinterested character, who would work for free. Next, the role of the figure of the architect diminished in the production chain, sharing skills and fees with a complexity of more and more actors (developers, engineers, town planners, economists, etc.).

Finally, the third limit is the inequality between men and women, admittedly not specific to the profession of architect, but which is embodied in several forms in this professional body. Firstly, from the point of view of the exercise of project management, female project management authorization holders in their own name (HMONP) are less likely than their colleagues to be listed on the Order of Architects (28% versus 41%). In daily life, pressure weighs and penalties apply to women, as this testimony expresses: “I work every evening and every weekend to compensate for having a child ). »

Charrette, schedules, salaries, gender inequalities tend the new generations of graduates towards a certain disillusionment and invite them to exercise other activities than those traditionally attributed to architects: they can become designers, critics, writers, teachers, researchers, journalists, engineers, town planners, landscape architects, designers, interior architects, revealing a plurality of complementary facets to the activities of architecture.

Future challenges for graduates

The implementation of authorization for project management in one’s own name (HMONP) offers prospects to architects in terms of business creation, which commits them to breaking with a liberal model which has visibly reached its limits. New generation agencies are part of this change and are successfully entering into entrepreneurial models.

Some, such as Citizen architects , for example, offer to direct the skills of their employees towards segments of activity adapted to each (design, building site, communication) and banish the practice of the cart. Others like Poly Rhythmic are polyfunctional, made up not only of architects but also of engineers, thus benefiting from a mixture of professional cultures to find an alternative path to the traditional model.

sociological survey conducted on the HMONP professional situation collected the ideal practices of state architects projected in 10 years and here are the projections of new graduates:

  • practice in the form of associations, networks, with a multidisciplinary openness and a synergy of skills;
  • exercise with an anchoring in a territory in the region of origin, on territorial themes (rurality, mountains, coast);
  • practice in a “human-sized” structure;
  • exercise with commitment and according to its values: importance is given to the quality of the order, to the relationship with the customer, to a social and more ecological commitment;
  • open up, train in other skills, flourish: one of the concerns of graduates is not to lock themselves into a single practice, but to have plural professional practices and a fulfilling private life.

Finally, the charrette sheds light on the conditions of access to an ancient and codified profession, that of the architect, subject to demographic (ageing, intergenerational), ecological and energy (RE2020, rehabilitation, frugality) and economic (crises, transition) issues. . Many challenges therefore await every day (and perhaps less every night) students, teachers, professionals and institutions to provide solutions and visions for the future of a built environment and an environment undergoing profound transformation.

Author Bio: Laura Brown is a Teacher-researcher at the Graduate School of Real Estate Professions at the University of Bordeaux