Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects renovates and expands Dartmouth's Hood Museum of Art

A Quiet Place

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects renovates and expands Dartmouth's Hood Museum of Art

Up close, the newly reopened Hood Museum of Art exudes a quiet confidence uncommon in large-scale institutional projects. The architecture, lightly brutalist in form, doesn’t command attention from afar or overwhelm the small campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

It’s simply inviting. And the same goes for the inside.

The design team behind the $50 million renovation and expansion project, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (TWBTA), will be the first to say its intervention is meant to focus a visitor’s experience on the art, not the architecture. But that doesn’t mean the architecture isn’t vital; it’s a backdrop, the architects say. This is an important lesson the pair has been trying to learn throughout the four-decade partnership.

“As you grow older, you develop a sense of confidence in yourself,” said Tsien. “When you’re more confident, I think it’s less important that you declare yourself in the architecture.”

In the case of the revamped Hood Museum, the firm’s own quiet confidence translates into the museum’s bold, yet restrained new look.

Photo of Hood Museum of Art
The architects wanted their addition to the Hood Museum let the art “speak for itself.” (Michael Moran, Courtesy Hood Museum of Art)

Situated on a campus full of 19th-century, Georgian-style buildings, the Hood Museum is tucked between a cramped series of structures lining the southern edge of Dartmouth’s historic green—a red-brick library, a glassy performing arts center from the ’60s, and a Machado Silvetti–designed visual arts center completed in 2012. The original museum building, which TWBTA meticulously renovated, was designed in 1985 by Charles Moore during his tenure at Centerbrook Architects.

In recent years, museum staff started to notice serious structural problems within the building and complained about its outdated interior layout, as well as its lack of light. The staff also needed a larger space for their own offices, due to an ever-growing team, and more teaching facilities to accommodate the 40 departments that use the museum’s 65,000-piece collection for study throughout the year.  

The school hired TWBTA to build on Moore’s legacy by adding 16,350 square feet to the existing site, while simultaneously improving wayfinding, smoothing circulation, and bringing light into the formerly dark facility. The design team, led by Azadeh Rashidi, reconfigured the museum’s public-facing identity by creating a new boxy, off-white brick facade that cantilevers over the main entrance and an adjacent pathway. A 14-square-foot vitrine window was cut on the right side of the front facade to tease passersby with a glimpse into the museum’s new sculpture gallery.

Williams and Tsien credit the museum’s dedicated staff and curators in helping them calm down their vision for the building so the art could “speak for itself.” The two were compelled to design from the inside out, they said.

“We do care about the outside of the building,” said Tsien, “but we really do think about the experience first and foremost. We’re always trying to focus on finding a balance between rest and quiet as well as excitement and movement.”

Photo of Hood Museum of Art
The new Bernstein Center for Object Study will be the heart and soul of the Hood Museum, according to the museum’s director John Stomberg. (Michael Moran, Courtesy Hood Museum of Art

The firm’s 21st-century expansion added six new galleries to the Hood Museum, bringing the total from 10 to 16 galleries spread out over two floors. TWBTA also tripled the number teaching spaces by creating three classrooms within the new Bernstein Center for Object Study, where students can directly engage with single works of art pulled from the museum’s encyclopedic collection. They additionally built out a light-filled office space for museum staff on the top floor and designed a double-height, flex-use atrium connecting the entrance to the adjacent Hopkins Center for Arts. According to the architects, the new lobby can also be a performance or gathering space.

To create all this new space, TWBTA had to make a controversial change to the existing Moore building that solicited serious criticism in 2016. They filled in a large, sweeping courtyard that previously served as a gateway from the Green to the surrounding arts buildings and downtown Hanover. The new construction straightened out the Hood Museum and removed a Romanesque archway at the front of the structure that signaled its presence on campus and led visitors to the museum’s actual entrance beyond.

John Stomberg, Virginia Rice Kelsey 1961s Director of the Hood Museum, said the move was pivotal for allowing the museum to grow into the modern era and expand its art collection.

“We challenged Tod and Billie with the hard task of making a beautiful space that couldn’t increase beyond its current idiosyncratic location,” he said. “What they came up with was an idea so eloquent that it immediately seemed natural. It requires an extended visit to understand how deeply and completely it solves all of the museum’s dilemmas.”