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Last April, on a lot in Shaw, amateur construction workers donned safety masks and received crash courses in power tool operations. A few people raised a beam up on blocks and jumped on it for an impromptu strength test. Huge stacks of freshly cut wood triangles laid about. This ragtag crew were designers—members from both the American Institute of Graphic Arts and the District Design Lab. Their mission? Build an arts space. 

Though DDL and AIGA are both design-focused organizations, this is a somewhat unusual partnership. AIGA was founded in 1914 and boasts a national network of nearly 22,000 members, with a D.C. chapter helmed by 24 board members. DDL was formed a little over a year ago by a group of self-described architecture nerds who gather in their free time and are ruled by the informal motto to “just build shit.” 

Just building shit, it turned out, was exactly what AIGA was looking to do as well. AIGA events have traditionally trended toward professional development and lectures from “rock star” designers, but event organizer and AIGA board member Katerina Martchouk explains that within the D.C. chapter there’s been a dedicated push to switch it up and “actually make things, not just sit in the room and listen to somebody speak.” 

The two organizations originally connected at a lunchtime studio visit and decided to do a hands-on construction project. “This could’ve been a workshop where we were in a classroom making birdhouses, but we wanted [participants] to get a little construction experience and get people’s hands dirty,” says founding DDL member Jesse Wetzel

With space at a premium in D.C.’s real estate market, the challenge would be finding a location to build on. Martchouk happened to know Martin Ditto, real estate developer and CEO of Ditto Residential, who happened to have an empty lot slated for future condos. Having previously transformed the lot into a temporary Christmas tree farm, he was open to unconventional ideas and agreed to let the group use the space. 

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Prior to securing a space, DDL founder Ted Bazydlo says, “We had some loose ideas but… the site was really the generator.” All parties decided that the best option would be a flexible, multi-purpose outdoor shelter to allow for different kinds of events. Among this group of creatives, there were high hopes for a space that could host performance events and showcase local visual artists. Said Wetzel, “I’d really like it to be a venue for different voices,” going on to describe a beat poet who plays basketball near the site and local filmmakers who could project their works onto a back wall. The informational materials for the AIGA workshop suggested that the space would ultimately become an open-air pavilion used for performances, with a focus on “social outreach”.

Ditto, who is also on the board of Washington Project for the Arts, had similar thoughts back in May. “We’re heading in a direction where the operator of the space will be able to include a lot of local art and artists in their programming. So it’s going to be a cool opportunity to highlight art and artists that are in D.C. and bring people into that.” 

With a project chosen, the two-weekend joint workshop began, during which participants repurposed triangular fragments from the National Building Museum’s summer 2016 ICEBERGS exhibit and converted them into an undulating pyramid texture. Though the site was far from finished, the skeleton of the wall was in place to host performances for the Funk Parade. DDL members continued to work on the construction over the next several weeks, tweaking the design as they went, before it was revealed that the lot would be taken over by the traveling pop-up beer garden Canteen. 

The Shaw and U Street NW areas are home to dozens of outdoor patios and rooftops to drink in and on; arts spaces, not so much. Many galleries and performance spaces in the area have been shuttered due to zoning regulations and rising rents. Most notably, the historic jazz club Bohemian Caverns closed in March 2016 and still stands vacant. The skate park/concert venue/gallery space Fight Club shut down in 2010, prior to its Blagden Alley location being revitalized. Two prominent galleries, Civilian Art Projects and G Fine Art, were priced out of their prime locations on 14th Street NW and in Shaw and moved in together in a space further north in 16th Street Heights. The former G Fine Arts building is now a branch of TTR Sotheby’s International Realty. Stephanie Rudig

There are potential remedies to the disappearing of cultural spaces. The website for the yet-to-be-released D.C. Cultural Plan lists “addressing rising real estate costs that affect artists’ abilities to find affordable space in the District” and “better leveraging of public land and infrastructure,” as key areas of focus. Ditto suggests a rule that anywhere from one to ten percent of new development space be earmarked for arts space. Similar regulations are in the works in cities such as Seattle, where the Office of Arts & Culture has released a list of 30 strategies to support the arts, including requiring developers to build another arts space for any one that they displace.  

Until these kinds of changes are implemented on the municipal level, however, using salvaged materials, borrowed space, and motley crews of friends will be the standard operating procedure for District creatives. Groups like AIGA and DDL will continue to have to tap into friend-of-a-friend networks and rely on the benevolence of those with access to space. On top of these challenges, everyone involved in the project was working on it as a side gig around their day jobs. Callie Bruemmer, who works on Ditto’s marketing, put it as such: “We’re not full time pop-up arts space producers.” 

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Construction is slated to begin on the site before the end of the summer, so the space isn’t going to be available for much longer. No Kings Collective, which creates murals and produces events, were tentatively hoping to program the space and spotlight local artists, but found themselves committed to other projects. And so the well-intentioned plans for a community arts space ran up against the tough reality of permitting and tight deadlines. 

Peter Chang of No Kings Collective says, “It’s not like something won’t pan out in the future. We’re not going to stop doing our pop-ups and murals and exhibitions, and [Ditto is] not going to stop developing.” Wetzel of DDL agrees. “Part of this is just building relationships with AIGA and Ditto and any other groups that might want to be a part of it. This isn’t just a one off.”

Despite the anticlimax of the lack of an arts space and the temporary nature of the project, those involved are satisfied with how it turned out. Bazydlo explains, “We really like the idea of temporal architecture. Part of the intriguing part of this site is just that in a few months, this is gone.” Bruemmer says, “Could it have been better used as an arts space? Totally, but no one’s disappointed.” 

For the members of DDL, the actual process of building is the most important factor. “For me, for DDL, it was an opportunity to do community outreach through design build,” Wetzel says. “There’s a lot of creative energy in the city, it’s just finding opportunities to bring people together and utilize it.”