Week 13: District Architecture Center

SIGAL Gallery Mission: The SIGAL Gallery in the District Architecture Center (DAC) serves as one of three leading venues in the District of Columbia dedicated to the celebration of architecture and the built environment. The SIGAL Gallery presents exhibitions that engage architects, architectural enthusiasts, related professionals, students, and the general public. Exhibitions showcase excellence in architecture, historic preservation, interiors, urban design and universal design. Displays rotate throughout the year with select shows organized by the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AID|DC) and the Washington Architectural Foundation (WAF).

“Buildings – real buildings – are very strange,” said Steven Milhauser when he spoke at the 2012 National Book Festival.  “Even a house is a very strange thing.” In his novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, the protagonist tries – and ultimately fails – to construct a building whose contents outshine the whole world.

I thought about the novel as I learned about the art nouveau work of Victor Horta, interpreted at the District Architecture Center’s SIGAL Gallery through photos, floor plans, quotes, and explanatory text (in four languages). Early in the exhibit, the Hotel Tassel (that is, Tassel House) in Brussels is described as “a theatrical space, creating perspectives in the heart of an illusory landscape.” These words remind me of the way Dressler uses theater and illusion in his hotels, as well as the phantasmagoric mood of the novel itself. However, while Dressler’s dream ultimately becomes too big to succeed, Horta’s architecture remains grounded in reality and exudes practicality and staying power.

Horta’s work is full of nature motifs, such as flowers, orioles, dragonfly wings. As a quote in the exhibit from Karl Blossfeldt states, “…nature is our best teacher, in terms not only of art but also of technique.

District Architecture Center

District Architecture Center

I was most intrigued by Horta’s Hotel Van Eetvelde, featuring a dome above a winter garden (conservatory). Working at the United States Capitol got me obsessed with domes. They are all over DC, signifying a number of ideas and functions: the grandness of our government (the Capitol dome as well as the simpler domes of the Russell Senate Office Building and the Cannon House Office Building), knowledge (Library of Congress, National Archives, National Academy of Sciences, several museums on the National Mall), religion (Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Franciscan Monastery, St. Matthew’s Cathedral), memorials (Jefferson Memorial, DC World War I Memorial), and even observatories and planetariums (National Air and Space Museum, Rock Creek Park Visitor Center). In the case of Hotel Van Eetvelde, the dome is a window that lets in light, and the winter garden is the center of the house, connecting two buildings.

Nothing would compare to visiting Brussels and seeing these buildings in person; some of them are available for public tours. However, this local exhibit allows visitors to learn about Horta’s work through words and pictures, while enticing us to try to see the real thing someday.


January’s blog theme is Communication Is Architecture.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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