Sixth ‘charrette’ eyes Spokane’s Great Gorge Park

For 130 design students at WSU Spokane, the second day of school last week meant being teamed to produce concepts for a project that has been calling to the Spokane community since 1908.

That’s the year Fredrick Law Olmsted, a principal designer of New York City’s Central Park, proposed The Great Gorge Park. For the next 90-plus years, the project tickled the city’s collective mind, until recent interest from numerous civic groups, like “Friends of the Falls,” “Friends of the Centennial Trail” and the Spokane Tribe kick-started some serious action into the idea. In March of this year, the Great Gorge Group unveiled conceptual guidelines, with an eye towards producing a master plan and securing funding.

Such events make for real-world learning opportunities. And David Wang, associate professor of architecture, made sure his students in the Interdisciplinary Design Institute made the most of it in the Sixth Annual Community Design and Construction Charrette.

Charrette and opportunity
‘Charrette’ is the French word for “cart.” It comes from Ecole des Beaux Arts, the trade of architectural education in France. This trade gave students “monster” projects to be judged within a short time in a “great hall,” explained Wang. The students would submit their projects at the last minute, still painting their concepts in watercolors while team members pulled the cart holding the project into the hall.

The Interdisciplinary Design Institute’s annual charrette brings third- and fourth-year undergraduate and graduate students together from different design disciplines — architecture, landscape architecture, interior design and construction management — to quickly produce concepts for a community project, said Kerry Brooks, associate professor of landscape architecture.

The charrette is a way of introducing the students to the Spokane community and to each other at the same time. “It’s a great way to start the school year and produce positive results for the community,” said Wang, charrette organizer.

One of last year’s participants, Dee Newlun, a graduate student in landscape architecture, said “Right from the beginning, the program is interdisciplinary… you are bombarded with information, and everyone on the team — none of us know each other — is focused on a different aspect. You have to learn to work together to come up with a comprehensive plan.”

Past charrette subjects have included the Spokane Marketplace and the 25th anniversary of Riverfront Park in 1998, the Lincoln Heights Senior Center and Wells & Company hotel suites in 1999, the Holley-Mason Building in 2000 and St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute in 2001. Student teams have also designed community projects in studio classes, including work with Hospice in spring 2000.

But this year, it was the Gorge.

The Great Gorge Park
The park is located along the north bank of the Spokane River as it flows through the Great Gorge immediately west of downtown Spokane. Some supporters would like the Great Gorge Park to become the next park of national significance by conserving the natural beauty, adding viewpoints of the scenic falls, a Spokane Tribe cultural center, and extending the existing Centennial Trail through the park.

The up-and-coming designers produce ideas for the land that the community interest groups might just use. “This is for educational purposes only,” said Wang, “but ideas usually emerge from the variety of proposals.” That means it is quite possible that Spokane will use concepts and designs these students develop.

Get to work!
On Tuesday morning last week, with only one day of school behind them, the design students were given background, presentations and a site tour of the park. Then a flurry of activity ensued as they rushed to meet the 5 p.m. Thursday deadline.

As they brainstormed ideas, they recognized the need to compromise if they were going to produce a final product in 48 hours. But once they agreed on a master plan, they broke out into their respective design disciplines to carry out their part of the project.

Students could be found scattered about the institute — in computer labs and on both floors of the design studio — calculating construction costs and timelines and sketching full-color plans for the park. But they always gravitated back as a team to make sure they were on track and on time. With such an intense schedule, there was little or no time for breaks, regular meals or sleep.

Like their French counterparts of another era, they worked to the last minute, hanging up their 3-D poster boards complete with their timelines, budgets, full-color drawings, and scaled-to-size models in the Design Institute’s Gallery. Then, exhausted after two consecutive all-nighters, they crawled into bed.

Judgment day
Friday morning, a panel of community leaders and faculty judged each team’s proposal. Comments ranged from “did not catch my eye at first, but had a lot of depth” to “followed guidelines and maintained focus of project.”

The winning team — Jodi Patterson, Sarah Shears, Sundi Schmierer, Sarah Singleton and Sam Castro (architecture) — emphasized nature and sustainability. They continued the Centennial Trail from Riverfront Park to People’s Park, redesigned the former Salty’s restaurant into a community center, added a plaza in front of the courthouse and linked it all with the trail, emphasizing mixed-use on the north bank of the river. Judges praised the team for their “subtle and delicate solutions to the project.”

Their prize is $300 (plus resumé material and bragging rights), and just maybe the chance to see their college work included in the actual park design.

“Every year, I’m impressed at how productive the charrette is,” said Wang, who was awarded the WSU Spokane Faculty Excellence Award in 2001, in part for starting and organizing the charrettes. “It really brings out excitement in the community, the students are fully engaged, and it is a great opportunity to work with media and let the community know what we are doing.”

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