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Williams College, the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts after Harvard University, has been home to a prestigious art museum on its bucolic Williamstown campus in the northern Berkshires since 1926. Throughout its entire history, however, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) has existed as somewhat of an interloper, populating an octagonal red-brick edifice originally built in 1846 as the college’s library and subsequently expanded and redesigned multiple times in the following decades—including a 1980s overhaul by Charles Moore—to accommodate the museum and its growing collection, which now stands at more than 15,000 works.

In 2027 (provided that the current project timeline holds), the WCMA will debut its first true home: a purpose-built facility in a prominently sited location off Williamstown’s Main Street. The future museum site is near the western entrance to the college’s campus where, until the summer of 2020 when demolition got underway, the beloved but past-its-prime old Williams Inn had stood for more than four decades. While never cloistered away in a difficult-to-access corner of campus, the WCMA will be more strongly fused with the local community in its new spot, more easily attracting out-of-town visitors while positioning itself alongside heavyweight art-world neighbors including the Clark Institute of Art, also in Williamstown, and Mass MoCA, just down the road in North Adams. The museum, which has long functioned as a valuable teaching resource for the leading liberal arts college, will continue to be free and open to the public once it reopens in its nearly 77,000-square-foot new space.


Rendering of day-lit gallery space at new WCMA. Image by Jeudi Wang, courtesy SO–IL and the Williams College Museum of Art

Brooklyn-based firm SO – IL, working in partnership with executive architect PDR and landscape architect Reed Hilderbrand, was selected to design the WCMA’s new building in spring 2020. The architect selection process followed a two-year planning and programming study conducted by the college in consultation with Ten Berke.  

At a recent design unveiling event held for press in New York City, SO – IL co-founders Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg, joined by WCMA director Pamela Franks, previewed the building. “This project has been really informative and a great opportunity for us as a firm,” said Liu at the event. “To be considered for this project is a great honor.”





Renderings of lobby with mass-timber roof detail (1) and special exhibition gallery (2). Images by Jeudi Wang, courtesy SO–IL and the Williams College Museum of Art

The new WCMA takes form as a cluster of five modestly scaled, pavilion-like volumes, set apart just so slightly as to differentiate their different programmatic functions. An undulating, aluminum shingle–clad roof structure constructed from cross-laminated timber will blanket all five volumes, its generous overhangs forming outdoor porches that provide shelter from the elements and, during the warmer months, natural spaces for congregation outside the museum walls. “It’s about a sort of cocooning experience,” explained Liu.

“Museum design has been taking a different direction,” added Idenburg. “It’s important that [with WCMA] there’s a certain level of welcoming, comfort, and ease of entry—the idea that you can really navigate between these spaces easily.”





Renderings of main museum entry (3) and study center (4). Images by Jeudi Wang, courtesy SO–IL and the Williams College Museum of Art

At the heart of the low-slung masonry building is a spacious courtyard garden that fuses the two gallery wings with the central lobby at the southern end of the site. Together, areas for displaying the museum’s permanent collection and temporary exhibitions will encompass 15,000 square feet of space—or roughly 35 percent of the building’s net square footage. In addition to dedicated gallery spaces, in the southwest corner of the complex will be a café, auditorium and studio space, while a hybrid gallery-classroom will sit to the southeast. Finally, to the east—closest to the campus proper—will be a 6,400-square-foot study center with dedicated areas for works on paper study, storage, a seminar room, a digital humanities classroom, and a pair of classrooms for object study.

As for the new museum’s town and gown connections, Idenburg remarked on how the campus navigates into the building thanks to its porosity and openness. “The threshold is very easy and welcoming to navigate.”

While not SO – IL’s first higher-ed museum commission, Liu pointed out that the WCMA varies from the firm’s work with Bohlin Cywinski Jackson on the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art at the University of California at Davis. “That was more for the students,” she said. “There’s not big public visibility there versus here, where we have to think about the seasonality and the differences of how this is both a public-facing museum—it’s the first building that you will see when coming to Williamstown—as well as not taking the building away from the student community itself.”


Southest view. Image by Jeudi Wang, courtesy SO–IL and the Williams College Museum of Art

The project is also a deeply green one. Through its use of renewable materials such as mass timber, climate control strategies, sustainable landscaping scheme, and other elements, the building is designed to meet the demanding benchmarks established by the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge.

“We’re very committed to this building being a great work of art, as well as a house for great works of art—but it also needs to meet these incredibly rigorous sustainability standards, which we want to lead the field in,” said Franks, who added that a crucial aim of the WCMA’s new home is to serve as a model for other museums striving for the highest sustainable levels without “diminishing the aesthetic experience of museums that are so important to our attachments to them.”


West view. Image by Jeudi Wang, courtesy SO–IL and the Williams College Museum of Art


Model of new WCMA building at Williams College. Image courtesy SO – IL

As for the WCMA’s current home at Lawrence Hall, Franks said that in the coming months, potentially as soon as this fall, the college will launch a programming study for the building, which she said will be refurbished and redesigned but remain an arts-purpose building albeit more “maker-focused with studios and rehearsal spaces.” 

“Renovating the building is going to be a topic that's very dear to many people,” she said.

The WCMAA will present an exhibition on its new SO–IL-designed home opening in May4.