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Q&A: developing a public space plan with Bâtiment 7

January 11, 2019
By Andy Murdoch

Photo by Antonia LaMantia

Faculty members Carmela Cucuzzella (Concordia University Research Chair in Integrated Design, Ecology, And Sustainability (IDEAS) for the Built Environment) , Alice Jarry and Kregg Hetherington, director of the Concordia Ethnography Lab, and Shauna Janssen, Concordia University Research Chair in Performative Urbanism and the director of the Institute for Urban Futures, in collaboration with Concordia’s Office of Community Engagement, are working with the community of Point-Saint-Charles on Bâtiment 7, a former CN train shop in the Montreal neighbourhood.

They have been co-leading a series of design charrettes between Concordia students and members of the neighbourhood on what the exterior spaces around the building could look like. The workshop at 4TH Space will be the next step in the process, to take place on Thursday, January 17.

With only one-third of their site renovated and in-use, the future of Bâtiment 7’s exterior public spaces is a pressing issue for the organization. They are engaging in a broad range of complex exchanges with partners and neighbours – the city, land developers and community-based organizations promoting community and social housing.

According to Kevin McMahon, Project Manager at Bâtiment 7, “the charrette has been a very useful means to think outside of the box of what we currently know and to integrate, as a result, new notions of all that we could conceivably achieve with our space.”

Bâtiment 7 is working with Concordia faculty and students on several design charrettes with the end goal of producing a document that they can present in these exchanges that outline a range of exterior land development scenarios.

But what exactly is a design charrette? 

Alice Jarry, Carmela Cucuzzella, Shauna Janssen, and Kregg Hetherington explain the processes, methodologies and goals of this design-led project.

Q: What happens at a design charrette?

AJ: At the first charrette we discussed this idea of collective autonomy because this is a core value at Bâtiment 7. We divided the space into a few tables. Each table had a few kickstart questions all articulated around the idea of collective autonomy. The questions at each table were different and they jump started the discussion. Students drew out the ideas expressed in text and visual, 3D models, little build ups; students were building little origami models with the B7 people. The event was about gathering as many ideas as possible around these questions. What was great about this first event was that people from B7 could come in and out and move around the tables so the discussion was really flowing very freely. It was very fluid.

CC: It’s important to say that the first thing we had to do was to build trust with the community. We can’t go in and say we’re going to design the site for them. We have to go in and listen to what they want and what they need and proceed from there. Participatory design is most effective when the task of collecting the values and what is important to the community is done so that it can directly nourish the design process. The information from these exchanges can be interpreted later by the designer. You have to start slow.

Q: What’s the difference between a charrette and a community consultation meeting?

Photo by Antonia LaMantia

CC: To do a charrette, you have to understand what the outcome is. Every single charrette has an objective. You have to define it even though it may not end up being what you expect. For example, for our second charrette in the 4th space, we already know that we are going to come up with 2 scenarios: a worst-case scenario and a best-case scenario. Along with the Bâtiment 7 people, we have to figure out what we want to include in these two scenarios. These designed scenarios are going to be used by Bâtiment 7 to articulate their position to the city and to developers.

AJ: And a charrette is experimental, it’s iterative, it’s incremental. Every event is a way of pushing this strength forward.

CC: Right. Design is never straightforward. If we can say one thing about design, it is a process of continual divergence and convergence. This iterative methodology is embedded in our charrette process and is a core element of CoLLboratoire, one half of my Concordia University Research Chair. Collaboratoire is by its very nature a form of active research. In this axe of my research chair, we only organize design charrettes and I am always experimenting with different forms of participatory design. That’s why I was very excited to be working with Bâtiment 7. It is a perfect case, condition and situation to fit within CoLLaboratoire.

Q: As scholars who are not designers, what attracted you to this method?

Photo by Antonia LaMantia

KH: For me it was an opportunity to get students involved collaboratively in what could broadly be called an ethnographic project thinking about the social relations in this space. Ethnography for us has always been more of an observer position. The charrette model allows my students to think about how to move into a more engaged practice in the community. That’s exactly why pairing up with a bunch of designers who fall on the active side of the research spectrum seemed like a really cool idea. Designers come in with a ton of ideas, whereas the ethnographers come in more with questions based on other contexts of how this might have social or political implications.

SJ: In the case of Bâtiment 7 it’s thinking about design as a kind of activism and a form of community engagement in addition to all practical and technical things that have to happen. The students aren’t just using their visual rendering skills, they are using the ethos of collective autonomy as well. It’s also thinking about designing as an interdisciplinary practice; bringing in different actors from different fields and different experiences to the process.

Q: Where do you think this design charrette process these lead?

SJ: It’s really important to think about what the deliverables could be and how they can work as literacy objects to present to other stakeholders and say look, we’ve had this collaboration, these are the various scenarios of what could happen. We’re aiming to produce that through the 4th space activities for the day.

AJ: We see a lot of potential with this project, but we are taking it step by step because every step is important in deciding what direction we are going in. It’s important to work this way because Bâtiment 7 is a very agile organization politically speaking in terms of organizing the community. We as researchers have to be just as agile as this project evolves.


The charrette is part of a larger program exploring the power and potential of cities and is coming to Concordia’s  4TH SPACE, which officially launches later this month. Cities: Urban Essentials aims to showcase Concordia research around making urban areas more sustainable, livable and resilient. It will take place over several days between January 9 and 23 at the innovative and versatile new venue on the ground floor of the J.W. McConnell (LB) Building.

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