Architectural rendering of new museum entryway
Architectural renderings by Jeudi.Wang, courtesy of SO-IL
The new designs for the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) evoke the word “permeable.” The tent-like roof line ebbs and flows along with the rise and fall of the mountains. Oversized windows provide views of the light-filled interiors as well as the courtyard at the building’s center. Gentle paths lead to and through the galleries, academic spaces, formal and informal gathering areas, and café. One gets the sense that they are not only looking at the museum of the future but also the future of museums.
The architectural renderings, released to the public in March, bring to life the guiding principles of WCMA’s first purpose-built museum building. In announcing the plans, SO-IL architecture firm founding directors Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg called it “a welcoming beacon, situated sensitively between campus and the world beyond. … Walls do not confine the concept of this museum.”
Its design also reflects the goal of “engaging the entire campus around art while bringing the Williams College experience into dynamic interaction with the wider world,” says Pamela Franks, the museum’s Class of 1956 director. “It will be a sustainable building in dialogue with the beautiful natural surroundings, where people can linger, converse, participate in wide-ranging programs and enjoy art from ancient Assyrian reliefs to contemporary media.”
Williams Magazine asked Franks to walk readers through the designs of the 76,800-square-foot building, which is scheduled to open in 2027 to inaugurate the museum’s second century. Here, she shares her thoughts on form and function.


01 — ENTRY (pictured at top)

The Williams College Museum of Art is a campus hub. Not only are studio art and art history among the top 10 majors at Williams, but thousands of students in courses from computer science to women’s, gender and sexuality studies visit each year to use the Object Lab and Rose Study Gallery—hybrid teaching, research and gallery spaces.

In its new location, at the western edge of campus opposite Field Park, WCMA will also be an inviting gateway to Williams. The entry communicates so much of what WCMA aspires to be—easy to find, inclusive, bright, filled with art, brimming with potential for learning and creativity. The top roofline dips just above the doors, creating a sense that the energy of the museum is concentrated and compressed at this key moment, ready to expand in every direction to make room for all the experiences that can open up within. Directly through the entrance, the courtyard draws you in and evokes the synergies among art, nature and architecture. Art is the first thing you see in every direction.


An architectural rendering of a southeast view of the new WCMA building

Approaching the new building from campus, a broad path leads through the changing colors of the surrounding flowering meadow. From this path, the first view of the interior is into the study center lounge, where, through the glass wall, students, faculty and museum staff come together for classes and research focusing on the collection. Continue along, and there’s an enticing café that opens onto the porch at the other end of the building.

03 — LOBBY

An architectural view of the lobby of the new WCMA building

Engagement with our world-class collection is central to WCMA’s mission. People come not just to look at art from around the globe but also to think deeply about the circumstances in which it was created, how the artists see the world and what those insights might mean for humanity. In doing so, visitors become partners in activating our growing collection of more than 15,000 works.

From the moment visitors enter the central lobby, there is a shared experience and sense of community. The angled, gentle curve of the timber ceiling reveals the very structure of the building. Masonry walls skin the exterior of gallery, classroom and research spaces, and public pavilions, unifying the distinct and purposeful spaces that contribute to the larger, shared mission of the museum.


An architectural rendering of the gallery space.

The new museum’s formal display spaces will consist of 11 galleries of different sizes, all featuring wood floors and wood-clad ceilings of different heights, with acoustic technology. Two of the galleries are designed to display art that looks best in natural light, with wood-edged central skylights and floor-to-ceiling corner windows facing north.

The variety of spaces allows us to explore innovative ways to show our collection, which ranges from intimate scale, as in our exceptional collection of South Asian painting, or very contemporary works, like Sam Gilliam’s drape painting Situation VI-Pisces 4 (1972). The galleries are designed to be inviting and warm—to encourage discovery, close looking and engaging discussion. Carefully calibrated views to the outside provide regular reminders of where we are on campus and in the Berkshires.


An architectural rendering of the north break space in the new WCMA building.
Every part of WCMA’s new building aspires to be an educational opportunity, from its gallery, classroom and research spaces to back-of-house functions.

The new building is also infused with spaces for students and other visitors to make their own—whether pausing to reflect on the art they’ve just seen, meeting a friend for a casual conversation, settling in to study or some use we haven’t even imagined yet. Interspersed among the galleries are three of these “break spaces,” including this one at the north end of the museum, joining the east and west wings of the galleries. Differently sized and configured, the break spaces can each spotlight a work of art and feature exposed timber construction, masonry-clad walls, stone flooring and views out to nature.


An architectural rendering of the study center lounge

The study center is the nerve center for the entire museum. It consists of two object study classrooms, a digital humanities classroom, a seminar room and a research room for works on paper—all connected by a dedicated lounge. The center will expand exponentially our capacity for teaching with art and direct research of the collection. And the lounge is the connective tissue between informal and formal learning. It’s a place to pause to say hello to a friend or review notes before a class session, to grab a few minutes after class with the professor or just to relax and gather one’s thoughts.

07 — PORCH

An architectural rendering of the porch of the new WCMA building.

The lessons the new museum will impart about sustainability are equally important. The museum is seeking the International Future Living Institute’s Living Building Challenge Core 4.0 certification, among the most ambitious sustainability goals in the industry. With a focus on renewable materials and innovative climate-control techniques, the building aims to require as little as 30% of the current baseline energy usage for typical art museums.

The generous roof overhanging the porch says “welcome” and creates natural outdoor spaces for both the café and classes. It also helps regulate the temperature inside, providing shade for the expanses of glass in the facade, and it will function as a rainwater retention system.

Outside the building, bio-retention basins will catch and treat rainwater, and a cistern beneath the parking lot will hold water back until the brook running north of the site can handle the runoff. The landscape around the building will be renewed and reforested, with a flowering meadow and gardens featuring native plants.


An architectural rendering of the west entrance of the new WCMA building.

WCMA’s new building will also be accessible in ways unimaginable in our current home, Lawrence Hall. The west entrance (which, like the pedestrian-focused south entrance, opens to the central lobby) offers a convenient drop-off point and accessible parking. It leads right to the café and auditorium, where large classes, public programs and social gatherings will have a beautiful and acoustically sophisticated new home.

There are many ways into and through the new museum, both structurally and also as a reflection of WCMA’s longstanding, guiding principle of offering many points of entry into the study and appreciation of art. We are always asking questions like: How does a work of art’s meaning change when seen through the lens of chemistry or math as compared to art history? How does being a faculty member, or the parent of a young child, or both, shift the experience of a visit? How do different backgrounds and perspectives add to the story of our collection and make new knowledge possible? Those questions and many more informed our vision for the new home of the Williams College Museum of Art.