Late last month, after two years working off campus, the staff of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College moved into their newly renovated offices on the third floor of the three-story building. Lofty second-floor gallery spaces rise on either side.
“The offices are not at the top,” said John Stomberg, the Hood’s director. “They are carved out like the center of a cantaloupe.”
The $50 million renovation is still underway as construction continues for the museum, which will open to the public on Jan. 26. Stomberg and architect Billie Tsien of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects/Partners invited the Globe in for a sneak peak. The design increases the museum’s gallery space by more than 40 percent, to 16,350 square feet, and underlines the Hood’s mission as a teaching museum with new, easily accessible object-based study centers.
The architects have made some significant changes to the quirky building originally designed by postmodern architect Charles Moore, which opened in 1985. Among the updates: replacing the north-facing facade and entryway, and separating the attached building from its neighbors.
The original building, with its many entrances, irregularly shaped galleries, and natural light pouring in along the stairs, felt sui generis. It had its charms and several issues, including the attached buildings, which Dartmouth asked the architects to address.
Reviewing Moore’s museum in 1985, Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell called it “a successful and even a marvelous work of architecture that occasionally slackens into self-indulgence and confusion.” He went on to describe the Hood’s gateway across from Dartmouth Green as “grim,” and noted visitors’ confusion once they passed through the gate.
“People had a hard time finding the front door,” said Tsien.
That’s no longer the case. Williams-Tsien has designed an off-white brick facade with a big bay window looking out toward the Dartmouth Green. Art will be spotlighted there.
“We call it the vitrine,” says Tsien. “A window box of what goes on in the museum.”
“It’s the signature gallery on the green,” Stomberg says of the space behind the window. “It reads for our purposes as transparent, or porous. An architectural metaphor for what we are.”
When the plans were unveiled two years ago, some critics balked.
“The museum was designed as not only a sequence of spaces and structures that have an overall integrity, but to mediate the buildings on either side,” says Kevin Keim, director of the Charles Moore Foundation in Austin, Texas. “The whole episode has been the architectural equivalent of throwing Charles Moore . . . under the bus.”
In an e-mail, Tsien said that changes to the campus and the needs of the museum dictated their design. “Change is never easy, but in the end, architecture is a service to the clients and users,” she said. “We are confident the new Hood both respects Charles Moore’s vision and iconic work while doing the same for the Hood and Dartmouth.”
Inside the museum, the window box is an update to Moore’s sunlit staircase. Natural light appeals to visitors, but it can damage art. Williams-Tsien has replaced the stairway windows with light boxes, and their vitrine lets natural light into a gallery designated for sculpture not sensitive to the sun.
The new design has widened a walkway beneath the museum connecting the north and south plazas. The southern entry used to be more a back door, but now it sits prominently on the Arts Quad. There are no traces of the new design from this side — it’s all Moore’s mix of romantic gables, playful arcs, and sober red brick. His copper roof and cupola have been faithfully reproduced, but improved to avoid ice dams.
Inside, a spacious lobby welcomes visitors to the study center and the galleries.
Before the renovation, says Hood deputy director Juliette Bianco, “The only way into the study space was hidden. On any given day, there would be hundreds of students studying in the museum, and no one had any idea.”
Now three classrooms, with enormous doors to accommodate any of the museum’s 65,000 objects, will offer students opportunities to get up close to a Picasso or an Australian aboriginal painting.
The architects have maintained Moore’s idiosyncratic exhibition space, and added six new galleries, bringing the total to 16.
“In a way, we have simplified [Moore’s design],” says project architect Azadeh Rashidi.
Climate control and lighting have been updated; facilities that used to be bulky and exposed are now hidden.
Stomberg calls the first gallery beyond the lobby “global contemporary.” The initial installation will include works by May Stevens, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Glenn Ligon, and Nigerian painter Obiora Udechukwu.
“We’re hoping people will come in and have, excuse the expression, a WTF moment,” says Stomberg.
“Our strategy is to reemphasize one of the Hood’s strengths,” Stomberg continues. “Contemporary aboriginal Australian. Contemporary African. Contemporary Native American. . . . The Hood has had a global vision for what art is, not just today, but throughout the ages.”
Dartmouth’s collection dates back to 1772, three years after the college was founded, and it includes a trove of ethnographic objects.
Bianco says the staff plans to be more nimble with its exhibition planning.
“We got really comfortable in the old building with the permanent collection on the first floor, exhibitions on the second,” she says. Now, although galleries will be named for donors, most won’t have specific designations for types of art.
The new galleries, like the new north-facing facade, are modern and understated.
“We’re hoping with this architecture to be quietly amazing,” says Tsien. “It doesn’t say ‘Look at me!’ on the outside. It says come inside, and you’ll be surprised at what you find.”
If Tsien is thinking about the visitor’s experience, Stomberg is thinking about the art’s. “The art will be happy here,” he says. “It will thrive.”Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.