Is the Hood Museum Renovation Really as Bad as Critics Claim?

The Tod Williams Billie Tsien renovation of the Hood Museum has spurred considerable controversy. But does the proposal truly deserve the criticism it’s inspired?

A rendering of the proposed expansion of the Hood Museum of Art by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, as seen from the north. The new galleries and museum lobby will be located where the Hood’s memorable gate and intimate courtyard currently sit.

Courtesy Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

When it was unveiled this spring, the $50 million renovation and expansion of Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum of Art, devised by architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, provoked considerable controversy. The proposal dispenses with significant portions of the 1985 museum, designed by the well-loved, but little-understood, Postmodern architect Charles Moore. The architect’s defenders say the expansion does irrevocable damage to his sensitively planned building. The museum administration, meanwhile, claims the new design is not just ingenious but also respectful. Moreover, the Moore building will live on, just in a different form. The reality lies somewhere in between.

At first glance, the subject of the Hood Museum expansion is rife with ironies, which is why the architectural press has taken up the story so gleefully. Isn’t it ironic, the detractors posit, that Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, the architects whose beloved Folk Art Museum was demolished in 2014 to make room for new MoMA galleries, would so callously “obliterate” a gemlike work by another respected architect, Charles Moore? Isn’t it rich that the Hood Museum, nestled thoughtfully among the buildings of Dartmouth College, renowned for its sensitivity to context, should be partially replaced by a building so big, so blind to its neighbors, so…MoMA-like?

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When one looks at the project rendering that’s been circulated, it’s hard to disagree with the critics. The image of the Hood’s north wing shows a large, cream-colored box hunkered down in what is currently a delicate courtyard. The only semblance of the original museum is half an aged copper cupola—a vague hint of Moore—off in the distance.

Yet Dartmouth’s administration has repeatedly emphasized that the project is both an expansion and a renovation. Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA) will be adding new, signature galleries to the museum, yes, but the bulk of the original Charles Moore structure (including seven of the Hood’s 11 galleries) will be preserved.

The Hood’s former director Michael Taylor believes the real reason for the controversy is the project’s supposed connection, via TWBTA, to the loss of the Folk Art Museum. To his mind, however, there’s no irony. “Because [Williams and Tsien] lived through that experience [of the Folk Art Museum]—I was very much working with them at that time and they felt that deeply—they respected the Moore building. This idea that they would somehow disrespect another architect really has no understanding of who they are, what they’ve been through, and how much they value architecture.” Current director John Stomberg has similarly defended the plans, maintaining that the new museum will be a Tod Williams Billie Tsien experience as well as a Charles Moore experience.

The real issue of the Hood expansion is one of preservation. No one—neither a Dartmouth administrator nor any critic—is calling for a re-creation of the original Moore structure. It’s clear, however, that these two parties are defining preservation in radically different ways. The real question, then, becomes more complex. At what point does a renovation, even against its best intentions, destroy the thing it’s trying to preserve? And at what point is Charles Moore’s building, his legacy, effectively erased?

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Moore’s penchant for quirky, sometimes kitschy, details has made it easy to peg him as a Postmodernist. Kevin Keim, the director of the Charles Moore Foundation, and one of the loudest voices of dissent to the proposed revamped Hood, lays some of the blame on the nature of the architect’s buildings themselves—they don’t photograph well. “For Charles, the printed page is simply too flat, it’s two-dimensional,” Keim explains. “What gets emphasized with his work is the decoration, because it’s so vivid. That’s what grabs your attention. What isn’t conveyed—and it’s difficult, because Charles’s buildings were so spatial—is that sense of space.”

Although scarcely recognized today, Moore’s genius lay not in promoting a self-conscious style, but in creating complex spatial journeys. His contribution to architecture lies much more in his design process than in any one building. He was, of course, interested in drawing references to history and pop culture, but for him, sensitivity to place and context—to landscape, as well as the surrounding built environment—was key.

So was listening to the needs and desires of users. “Receptivity,” Moore wrote in 1985, “is at the heart of our beliefs as architects.” He almost always engaged in community workshops and envisioning sessions, in which all stakeholders were encouraged to suggest alternatives and weigh in on a proposal’s pros and cons.

Indeed, Moore ought to be remembered first and foremost as a pioneer of socially responsible, participatory design. It was Moore who, as dean of the Yale School of Architecture, cofounded the Yale Building Project in 1967 and who influenced Samuel Mockbee, the founder of the famous Rural Studio at Auburn University. Stephen Harby, a faculty member at Yale and a former colleague, suggests that Moore’s refinement of the participatory process, which put users on a level playing field with “expert” architects, is “one of his important contributions to architecture.”

All of these aspects of Moore’s process come together, rather ingeniously, in the Hood Museum.

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The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, circa 1985. On the left of the Hood is Wilson Hall; on the right, the Hopkins Center. Charles Moore took inspiration from both structures, the smokestack from the adjacent 20th-century power plant, and the mills found throughout New England.

Courtesy ©Tim Hursley

Even in 1981, when planning for the Hood Museum first began, it was a Gordian knot of a site challenge. Architect James Stirling, who taught at Yale at the time, even assigned the problem to his students; none came up with a satisfactory solution.

Buzz Yudell, Moore’s former partner, may not have worked on the Hood himself, but he remembers Moore’s excitement at taking on this “non-site,” a swath of land behind and between two radically different buildings. To the east, there is Wilson Hall, a Romanesque brick building from 1885; to the west, Wallace K. Harrison’s Hopkins Center (known as the Hop), a clear predecessor to his Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center. According to Yudell, Moore had no great love for the Harrison building, but was nevertheless “intrigued by how one could take all of these disparate, but historically interesting and important, pieces, and be very respectful and thoughtful in how you inserted and developed a whole new piece, with its own strong character.”

To come up with the right orientation for the building, Moore held workshops on Dartmouth’s campus with a committee including the college provost, the president, and the Hood’s director. Julia Miner, a Dartmouth grad who worked with his firm Moore Grover Harper on the project, remembers building a model of the entire site with pieces that could then be taken apart and recombined to physicalize suggestions from the participants. “I was in awe of Moore’s ability to work with a group,” Miner says. “He was just a genius when it came to thinking on his feet, responding to ideas around him, and yet maintaining a sense of integrity about his design.”

After testing numerous schemes, a solution arose. “When the smoke cleared,” Moore wrote in a chapter of Treasures of the Hood Museum of Art (Hudson Hills Press, 1985), “the site tucked back in the center of the block had surfaced as the only one that made sense. The building was brought up to the Green by a connecting link between Wilson and the Hop, with an entrance [gate] and a sign, and was nestled among all the pieces of a very complicated block. I find it a fascinating choice, and I am delighted with it.”

In the end, the Hood, as Yudell explains, is not a building but a series of spatial experiences. It “creates this wonderful sequence of invitation, of discovery unfolding. [It’s] a choreography of experience that works all the way from the outside through the courtyard and inside the building.” In other words, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The only way to understand the building, then, and the extent to which the expansion would change it, is to experience the Hood in person.

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The courtyard will be filled in for the expansion of the museum.

Courtesy ©Tim Hursley

As you approach the site from Dartmouth’s sprawling Green, the red-brick turret of Wilson Hall and the five semicircular windows of the Hop are instantly recognizable. It takes a few more steps before the entranceway, the bush-hammered concrete gate that lies solidly between its neighbors, comes into view. Dignified, gray, it announces its presence with four engraved, somber letters: H O O D.

Walk between the concrete columns and you descend into a quiet, meditative space. A small sign clearly signals the Hood Museum entrance to the left, while a small patch of green lies ahead. Pedestrians and cyclists hurry past it as they cut through on their way to class. On the left, a wide ramp unfolds around the courtyard; if you ascend slowly, as the incline demands, you can admire the subtle charm of the space on the short journey to the front door.

And there you will see the conflict at work: the delight of a unique, special place, and the reality that it isn’t being utilized as intended.

When John Stomberg became the Hood’s director this past January (months after the Williams-Tsien project had been approved), he was surprised by the vehemence with which the architectural community reacted to the plans. The Hood was badly in need of a renovation and a reimagining, and TWBTA’s design addressed every single point in its brief, and as far as the college and the museum staff were concerned, brilliantly.

There were many issues to be addressed. When the Hood Museum was built, it had a staff of ten; today, it has more than 30 employees and could easily expand to 40 soon. Because of insufficient classroom space, classes are held in small storage areas. For years, the windows lining the main staircase have been covered up with heavy black scrims to avoid letting in too much light. Six months of every year, the duration of a New Hampshire winter, scaffolding is erected to prevent falling snow from harming passersby. The ramp is closed when ice proves too hazardous, forcing visitors to come in unceremoniously through the back. Windows are leaking and gathering significant mold, endangering the art. Groups of students, lacking a cloakroom for their things, leave mountains of backpacks at the front desk daily. The gradation of the entrance does not meet standards for disabled accessibility. The building envelope is woefully inadequate and inefficient by modern-day standards.

But the staff’s biggest complaint is that the Hood’s entrance, set back from the college Green, and its front door, at the far end of the courtyard, are hard to find. The Hood has grown into the preeminent teaching museum in the country, and the building, the college feels, is not living up to its renown.

When we view the expansion through the prism of Moore’s legacy, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien’s project feels wanting.

Dartmouth first began seriously mulling over the Hood’s fate in 2001, when it commissioned a speculative study by Rogers Marvel Architects. In 2005, it commissioned another by Machado Silvetti, the architectural firm that designed the Hood’s newest neighbor, the Black Family Visual Arts Center. Then in 2010, it commissioned yet another study, this time by Centerbrook, the practice that Charles Moore cofounded afterparticipatory process, which put users on a level playing field Moore Grover Harper. None created the visual presence—that new front door—that Dartmouth administrators were looking for.

The college began soliciting proposals from a broader pool of architects. A selection committee, including faculty and administrators, winnowed down a short list. In the end, four architects were selected to be interviewed. John Scherding, director of campus design and construction, vividly remembers the TWBTA proposal:

“All of us in the room felt it was brilliant. They were the only firm that suggested disconnecting the Hood from Wilson Hall, allowing Wilson to stand proudly on the corner of the Green. They were the only firm that showed a strong identifiable front entrance to the building, infilled the courtyard to provide program space, and really strengthened the north-south axis. It was a very powerful and simple concept that satisfied all of the needs.”

Tod Williams and Billie Tsien declined to be interviewed for this article, but their plan essentially appears to divide the Hood site into two sections. The southern section, which includes much of the actual museum, will be preserved almost entirely—only one of the 11 galleries (one of the more nondescript first-floor galleries) will be sacrificed, and the southern gateway will be widened. The northern section, which includes the entrance, the courtyard, and the Hood’s administrative spaces, will be demolished, making room for a two-story, L-shaped addition. The base of the L will sit on the Green and accommodate the Hood’s new lobby entrance (or “atrium concourse”), while the stem of the L will extend alongside an expanded north-south passage, with landscaping by Hargreaves Associates.

As the Hood’s director, Stomberg knew the signature Moore gateway would have to be sacrificed for the sake of the TWBTA project—something he feels is necessary for the Hood to have a more inviting, accessible campus presence. He admits that, at first, he didn’t understand the significance of the courtyard, nor why its imminent destruction was arousing such ire. Nevertheless, Stomberg stands behind the decision, for one simple reason. The courtyard is far more beloved from afar than within. In theory, it’s delightful, but in practice, he says, it’s just not used. “That’s the brilliance of [the TWBTA] plan; it turns outdoor space that’s never used into indoor space that will always be used.”

Former director Michael Taylor put it this way: “[Moore’s] design responded to the needs and challenges of 1985. Tod and Billie are responding to 2019.”

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Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ model of its proposed expansion of the Hood Museum, seen from the west.

Courtesy Hood Museum of Art

The delicacy of TWBTA’s restoration will truly be understood only when the expansion is complete. However, the plan already has some clear advantages. It provides for all the teaching museum’s needs within considerable site restraints. It thoughtfully preserves the gallery spaces (one exemplary detail: To preserve the windows along the staircase, and the dance of light along the walls, TWBTA will convert some of the windows into light boxes of stained glass) and will likely improve the museum experience in many fundamental ways. In interviews, the museum staffers, who profess to love the original museum, seem overjoyed: They believe the new scheme preserves the best of Moore’s design while transforming the worst.

After all, Moore wanted his buildings, first and foremost, to serve their users. If he could see the Dartmouth campus now, if he knew the courtyard was being used as a passageway and that the outdoor spaces turn treacherous in the winter months, he would have worked hard toward a new solution. Harby agrees: “If [Moore] were alive today, if he’d been asked to come in and redo his building, I suspect he might well have radically changed it.[…] He wouldn’t have been precious or been a preservationist.”

The new design addresses every single point in the brief, and as far as the college and the museum staff are concerned, brilliantly.

However, the question of how to adapt Moore’s building, to what extent it should be preserved, lies in other architects’ hands. And when we view the expansion plans through the prism of Moore’s legacy, the project still feels wanting.

While the design process for the renovation was nowhere near as secretive or closed off as critics have charged (multiple surveys were sent to the faculty and students, and the project, like the original Hood, was reviewed by stakeholders throughout the college administration), neither was it, as Moore described the Hood’s planning, “the opposite of mysterious.” Although the TWBTA scheme will use a gray-cream brick for the exterior (one far less shocking than the renderings make it appear), the addition seems to show little deference to its neighbors. And, finally, the sequence of experience will likely be irrevocably altered; the new Hood will not be slowly discovered. Indeed, it will be difficult to miss.

But the task of faithfully following Moore’s process was not the brief given to Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Moreover, at no point during planning was an expansion of the Hood Museum beyond its current boundaries seriously considered. Jacquelynn Baas, the Hood’s director at the time of its opening more than 30 years ago, sees this as the crux of the issue: “The college, rather than providing additional space to expand, told these architects they had to basically expand on top of the current building. Which is mission impossible! […] It’s not that these architects are incapable of doing good buildings—they certainly are. The problem is the program they were given was an impossible program.”

In asking for a museum of the 21st century, as Dartmouth had, it was asking for a building antithetical to Moore’s conception of a museum. The 21st-century museum announces itself boldly; it serves as an event venue and public plaza; it integrates smart technology and environmentally conscious building elements; it is a cultural and economic engine. The Hood Museum’s conceit—call it false, call it impractical, call it charming—was to draw you in, to prime you for a special experience, an intimate engagement with art. The Hood had its faults, yes, but it was unique. It’s unlikely the same will be able to be said about the new Hood.

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