D. Maurice Kreis
More Greatest Hits from My Old Blog
At Dartmouth's Hood, a bittersweet triumph over splashy postmodernism
[September 2020 note: This one annoyed a lot of people. In early 2019 I attended a tour of the newly reopened Hood Museum at Dartmouth. The museum's director made an idle remark, speculating about something that was well beyond his purview. It eventually turned out he was mistaken. Nobody claimed I quoted him inaccurately; what seemed to irritate folks was that I passed along his musings on a for-what-it's-worth basis. Which raises an important ethical issue: Am I obliged to play journalist before making a blog post? After all, a journalist would have investigated further and might have even given the director a chance to walk back his comment. Here's the thing, though. I am a former journalist. As a blogger, I take the world at face value. Anything else would get too complicated.]
John Stomberg, director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, let slip a noteworthy factoid recently while giving a tour of his newly reopened and newly expanded facility.
Showing off the expansion and renovation designed by the world-renowned New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Stomberg casually mentioned that the Hood opted to stick with its existing location at the center of campus rather than move to a more distant spot that had been offered, which he characterized as being near the Connecticut River. Instead, Stomberg said, that’s where Dartmouth will put the new central heating plant it recently announced plans to construct so as to stop burning oil and start burning sustainably harvested wood.
It isn’t necessarily an authoritative statement with respect to the new energy facility, which will need a water source but which could, if placed at riverside, dramatically alter the look and feel of the bucolic waterway that separates Dartmouth and its town of Hanover from neighboring Norwich, Vermont. But in architectural terms, Stomberg’s comment reflects a decisive and controversial move for Dartmouth as the state’s most well-resourced patron of the built world.
The original Hood Museum, completed in 1985, was the work of Charles Moore, the former Yale architecture dean who migrated to California and became one of the nation’s most eager exponents of so-called “postmodern” architecture. As it flourished in the 1980s, postmodernism was an exuberant rebellion from the minimalist look of the 50s, 60s and 70s. In Hanover, it took the form of a friendly revolt against an abstract modernist brick complex opened in 1962, the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Wallace K. Harrison in what became the prototype for Harrison’s Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Moore got to wedge his Hood Museum between the Hopkins Center and a much older Romanesque building, Wilson Hall.
The Moore-designed Hood playfully bridged the Romanesque and the mid-century modern by using (to quote Architectural Record) “a cornucopia of arches, Egyptoid columns, Flemish bond brickwork, bullnose stringcourses, a rotunda, and much more. Inside, the museum was organized around a grand stairway intended to evoke the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, opening at its summit to a soaring multi-story gallery where hung, in recent years, a sculpture by the Spanish artist Juan Munoz called Figure Hanging from One Foot. The Munoz work does indeed appear to be a human body dangling by an ankle.
Postmodernism, as a legitimate architectural style worthy of preservation for the long term, is similarly dangling. Widely derided, even when new, as theme-park architecture – think of (or google) the exuberant and garish Swan and Dolphin hotels that architect Michael Graves at Disney World in Florida – it has been adjudged by critics to be too goofy in particular for citadels of academic excellence. Skip Disney World and head for Middlebury College in Vermont to check out the Mahaney Arts Center, completed in 1992 to a design by another avatar of postmodernism, Hugh Hardy. It is a crazy, and often ridiculed cacophonous village of a building.
According to Stromberg, the decision not to uproot the Hood from its postmodernist home arose out of a desire to remain at the heart of the Ivy League campus. Indeed, the addition obliterates the north-facing Moore-designed portico, fills in most of what had been a serene courtyard, and provides the museum, in the form of the Williams-Tsien addition, a prominent and distinctive presence right on the Dartmouth Green.
In other words, the verdict is in. Charles Moore, your vision for what a museum should be, at a prestigious institution like Dartmouth College, has not withstood the test of time. There is enough evidence to support this verdict so that it should probably not be disturbed by the appellate court of public opinion.
Tod Williams and Billie Tsien are simply better architects than the late Charles Moore, the late Hugh Hardy, or the late Michael Graves were. A Williams-Tsien building is always an essay in restraint, with an emphasis on the beauty to be extracted from the careful and deliberate use of materials. Their approach to architecture spurns the expediency of postmodernism and reaches back to the finest American architect of the 20th Century, Louis Kahn.
So, if you’re as crazy about architecture as I am, here’s your itinerary for purposes of evaluating how well Dartmouth spent the $50 million it has just lavished on the Hood Museum. Head first for Exeter to check out the library Kahn designed for the Philips Exeter Academy. It’s the best building in New Hampshire; the concrete in the atrium is so lush and was so carefully cured during construction that you will want to rub it.
Next you should detour to Middlebury, Vermont to check out the wild and crazy postmodernism of Hugh Hardy. The performing arts center there is a carnival of shapes and decorative styles. Then make your way to Hanover.
There you will find a newly expanded museum that will earn its admiration quietly. The new galleries are vast, mostly white and arranged so that the art is not upstaged by the building. The excellence of the architecture speaks mainly through the quality and distinctiveness of the materials – oak floors, custom-made metal railings.
Both outside and in the capacious lobby, the brickwork (made in Denmark) is off-white. You could infer that this is the museum making its stand on the Green, rebelling against its red-brick neighbors, but I see the milky color as an homage to the museum’s chief benefactors, whose fortune was originally made in dairy.
In short, the difference between the old Hood Museum and the new is the difference between Ronald Reagan, whose sunny visage dominated the 80s, and Barack Obama, whose placid urbanity and sense of idealistic inclusion were the dominant theme when Williams and Tsien got this commission. Not coincidentally, they have also been hired by President Obama himself to design his Presidential Center in Chicago.
Happily, the Hood Museum is still free – and the expansion has allowed this inclusive spirit to suffuse the choices of what to display as well. The traditional, Euro-centric art is now relegated mostly to the periphery with the most prominent locations at the heart of the museum presently allocated to contemporary and historical art of Africa, Native America and aboriginal Australia.
The triumph is bittersweet. Surely even the most ardent Williams and Tsien fan must admit there’s something sad about Charles Moore being shoved aside.
Those who take that shove to heart can still make their way through the now-much-smaller courtyard and, passing beneath the remains the Moore building, emerge into a sun-dappled courtyard that has not been stripped of its compelling story about a half-century of contemporary American architecture.
Walk all the way to Lebanon Street, and now you are fully a block from the Green. Tturn around, and take in the panorama.
To the left, the back of the Hopkins Center Spaulding Auditorium, capped with a series or arches and decorated with an Ellsworth Kelly art installation that endearingly resembles a series of paint samples. To the right is the Black Family Visual Arts Center designed by Machado and Silvetti and completed in 2012. Clad mostly in ruddy slate imported from Norway, this building projects a busy, friendly architectural face to downtown Hanover. And at center stage is what is left of Moore’s Hood Museum, its arches and brickwork and seemingly haphazard forms mostly undisturbed.
This courtyard is a counterpart to the Dartmouth Green – a plaza of the people, by the people and for the people. Perhaps the people should approach the Hood from this direction, a rear-entry strategy that leaves the Green to the privileged students who are forever and notoriously crossing the street with their faces buried in their smart phones. Approached in this backward fashion, the new and improved Hood Museum can be appreciated for what it truly is – an act of architectural and artistic generosity, a building to be savored from the inside out, and an unambiguous rejection of postmodernism in favor of something more timeless.
The $3.3 billion question: Why donate to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation?
An interesting factoid about the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF): It has reserves of approximately 12 times its operating budget. That makes the CFF among the wealthiest, if not the wealthiest, healthcare charities in the country.
Since I have smart friends, it’s hardly shocking that one of them would ask about this in response to my customary end-of-year pitch on behalf of the CFF annual fund. Here’s my take on the full story, as I understand it.
The CFF is a dynamic and innovative organization. It has to be. The disease the Foundation is striving to conquer is a so-called orphan disease. Even though one in 26 people in the U.S. carries a genetic mutation that causes CF, fewer than 40,000 of them actually have CF because that requires a CF mutation on both ‘sides’ of chromosome 7. One innovation pioneered by the CFF is known as “venture philanthropy.” Basically, the CFF partners with drug companies – co-investing, alongside big pharma, in the research needed to develop new drugs that will be effective against the disease.
\ Among the drug companies with which the CFF has partnered is Vertex Pharmaceuticals. And, a few years ago, two Vertex drugs developed for CF patients hit paydirt. The drugs – Kalydeco and Orkambi – are breakthroughs in the sense that they are the first FDA-approved therapies that actually treat the root cause of CF at the cellular level – the failure of a particular protein (called CFTR) to emerge from the mitochondria inside cells, migrate to the cell wall, embed itself in the cell membrane and thereby open the chloride channels that allow salt water to pass through the membrane.
This was such a big deal – such a huge breakthrough – that the financial implications alone were staggering. In 2014 the CFF was able to cash out its share of the revenue stream associated with these drugs to the tune of $3.3 billion dollars. That’s billion with a B. Cashing that check is the reason the CFF has such a big reserve fund.
So why not just let that candle burn itself down a few years before people like me resume asking our friends to donate their hard-earned cash to the CFF?
Well, let’s start with the selfish reason. It’s on my license plate: N1303K. That’s the CF mutation I ‘contributed’ to my daughter – half the reason she has CF. N1303K is a relatively uncommon CF mutation and it is, so far, not among the mutations for which Kalydeco and Orkambi have been proven effective. I need the CFF to press onward until it has come up with therapies that work for people with all CF mutations.
According to the CFF, it’s taken expenditures of roughly $3 billion to get us from where we are today – the journey from an unknown reason for babies with salty skin to die, to a condition discovered in 1938 (by the chain-smoking lesbian pathologist Dorothy Hansine Andersen at Columbia Presbyterian, who noticed odd cysts on the pancreases of infants whose bodies she was conducting autopsies) to a disease whose median life expectancy is now in the early 40s. I have a feeling it is going to take us more than $3.3 billion to get us the rest of the way.
That journey – and here we come to my less selfish reasons – will help more than just my daughter, more than just people with exotic CF mutations, and, indeed, more than just people with CF. The CF Foundation has pioneered reforms that have changed healthcare. My favorite example is the CF Patient Registry, started by one of my great heroes, the late Warren Warwick, a pulmonologist from the University of Minnesota. The registry keeps data on every CF patient in the U.S. (at least those who don’t opt out) and we thereby have a deep mine of information about what works and what doesn’t work in treating the disease. It seems like a no-brainer – but nobody was doing this as to any disease until Dr. Warwick started doing it for the CFF.
Another great CFF idea: accrediting care centers. Every hospital that treats cystic fibrosis must meet rigorous care standards set by the Foundation on behalf of the people who have the disease. You don’t need a PhD in health care quality improvement to grasp the value of this. When the bean-counters at the hospital that cares for my daughter start hassling the head of the CF care center, he can (and does) look them back in the eye and tell them that to stay accredited they can’t cut corners.
The CFF has been a pioneer in patient and family empowerment. Right about when my daughter got her CF diagnosis in 2001, the Foundation acknowledged the reality that CF patients spend 98 percent of their time away from the care team at the hospital – ergo, it’s the patients and their families who are the real experts in treating the disease and maybe deserved a voice in how the standards for CF care are developed.
I could go on; the Foundation’s web site has many more examples – and an impressive pipeline of new therapies that are working their way through the FDA approval process. Still, I must admit, donating to the CFF is a bit like donating to my alma mater (the very well-endowed Middlebury College). Except it isn’t – not completely. The CFF is not building edificies and adding institutes and satellite campuses so that it has an increasingly impressive and permanent presence. The CFF is paying cool people – PhDs with bizarre specialities, doctors with deep insight, nurses who deliver the real healthcare – to do what their life’s passion is calling on them to do.
Oh, and did I mention that the CFF is also devoting resources to principled and aggressive advocacy? The Foundation has been stalwart in its ongoing effort to thwart repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and it will be there to defend Social Security Disability because it knows these things are essential to the survival of people with chronic illnesses like CF. Donating to the CFF is not going to be for everyone. Even if you prepared for college at the prestigious St. Paul’s School – as did the friend whose inquiry prompted this essay – and even if you love the school (as even I do, living nearby and enjoying its campus), you might reasonably conclude that it doesn’t need any more money. I guess you could draw the same conclusion about the CFF – but I do not. I send the CFF enough money each year so that I notice the ‘hit’ not because the CFF needs my cash, but because I need to feel connected to its work. I ask others to donate because I know that some of them will likewise take real joy in having that bit of palpable connection to my family and its challenges. Some of them won’t – and for those folks, there are other worthy charities (some of which I donate to as well). That’s okay too.
I’d be the last one to say it’s a blessing to have CF, or to be the parent of a person with CF. But it’s a blessing to be connected to all of the insight, and passion, and plain-old human persistence and achievement that emanates from the community of people affected by this disease. The big reserve fund notwithstanding, inviting others to share in that blessing is something I do without hesitation.