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04.26.2012
AIA in DC Gets Centered
Capital chapter to engage the city.
The District Architecture Center on 7th Street in Penn Quarter.
Courtesy DAC

Five months after it opened, the new home of the AIA’s Washington, D.C., chapter still looks pristine, with gleaming floors and unsmudged glass walls. Keeping it that way requires work, according to Mary Fitch, the chapter’s executive director. Dust bunnies must be chased from the floors, and a bad pinup experience taught Fitch and her colleagues not to cover up the walls of the glass box at the heart of the space. Some days are busy with visitors, while others are quieter. “There’s no normal yet,” Fitch said.

 
Transparency on two levels allows for high flexibility in terms of exhibitions and programming.
 

But a daily rhythm is slowly starting to form at the District Architecture Center (DAC), which occupies 11,000 square feet on the renovated first and basement floors of a 1917 building in Penn Quarter, Washington’s tourist and entertainment district. A few days a week, the DAC—designed by local firm Hickok Cole Architects—hosts meetings, lectures, and other events (often “multiple things per day,” Fitch noted). Passing pedestrians slow down in front of the window wall to study the exhibition in the gallery, the more curious among them venturing inside. All day long and into the evening, students arrive and depart from French classes held by the Alliance Française, which leases the lower level from AIA DC.

All this activity would have been unthinkable in the chapter’s previous home, a cramped row house on Dupont Circle. Flexible classroom spaces were at the top of the leadership’s wish list, and the DAC’s two classrooms have filled to capacity many times already. These rooms can be combined into one large hall—useful for popular events—but being able to use them as separate spaces has proved equally if not more important. Committees can hold more regular meetings, now that they’re not fighting over where to go.

Chapter offices are located at the back of the building, which the staff had feared might be gloomy, but thanks to internal walls of glass “there’s plenty of natural light back there,” Fitch said. Event rentals have taught staffers a crucial benefit to having closed-door offices.

Although its official opening was in November, the DAC is preparing for a second, higher-profile debut in May, when the AIA National Convention comes to town. AIA DC will be giving frequent tours of the space, both to official AIA tour groups and conventioneers just dropping by. Mainly, the chapter will be showing off a new exhibition (from May 3) featuring the winners of the chapter’s recent unbuilt design competition. This show is a companion to Unbuilt Washington, on display at the National Building Museum.

Amanda Kolson Hurley