The New Clark Art Institute Reinvents The Museum Fountain For A Sustainable Age

Add a one-acre reflecting pool and save about 25% more water. How’s that work?

At a time when part of the country is enmeshed in a horrifying drought, it’s hard not to look at water features scornfully. Who needs a pretty fountain when farmers are being forced to enter intense bidding wars to keep up their crops?


At first glance, the one-acre reflecting pool at the newly-renovated Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, looks like an egregious, wasteful offender. But the two-story pool, designed by architect Tadao Ando and landscape architect Gary Hilderbrand (of the firm Reed Hilderbrand), is more than meets the eye. The water feature works together with the surrounding landscapes and buildings to create a sustainable system–one that wastes virtually no water.

The Clark renovation project has taken over a decade, but Ando’s vision of creating a landscape with a large water feature that connects the two original buildings of the museum with the new Clark Center, remains intact. Executive architect Gensler took on the role of sustainable design consulting. “Sometimes, it’s just a matter of listening. All of the various disciplines were doing their best in terms of contributing to sustainable points. There seemed to be a concern in the background about water and what to do with water,” says Maddy Burke-Vigeland, who led the Gensler team. “A lot of the building is built underground, so there was a lot of foundation that needed to be dealt with, an existing lily pond to be protected, and a water feature to be fed.”

Burke-Vigeland credits her colleague Ben Koenig for the idea that led to the water feature system we see today. What if, he wondered, it was possible to connect the Manton Research Center (one of the existing buildings) with pipes to the roof drainage system, which then lead to the museum building, feeding the water feature in the process?

“From there, it went even further as Reed Hilderbrand developed the water feature. We were constantly looking at how the water feature could be appropriately sized so that it could trickle into the landscape,” says Burke-Vigeland..

Here’s how it works: rainwater is collected from the rooftops of the Manton Research Center and the museum building. A simple gravity pipe connects them to the reservoir system. Other sources of water, including the roof of the Clark Center, surface drain water collection along permeable surfaces, foundation water drainage, and geothermal wells, are also connected to a water tank. The reservoir serves the water feature, as well as plumbing fixtures, site irrigation, and the site’s cooling tower. Emergency overflow from the water feature goes into a nearby brook. Since the water is treated with ozone instead of chemicals, there’s no danger to creatures living in the brook.

All told, the 140-acre museum site uses 25% less than what it used prior to the renovation.


“In all of our projects, water comes up as a bad thing–how are you going to keep the water out? One of the things architects need to talk about is–you’re keeping the water out, but what are you doing with it?” says Burke-Vigeland.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.