One of the great goals of contemporary American architecture has been to create meaningful harmony between buildings and their natural environment. Some structures incorporate lines and forms from their surroundings while others aim for minimalism and transparency to better emphasize their contexts. When the Grace Farms Foundation-a group of neighbors and friends seeking to protect a pristine swath of rolling Southwest Connecticut farmland from subdivision development-decided to build a non-profit community center, they decided to go even further. Their goal was to build a structure that nearly disappeared.
Situated in the midst of 80 beautiful acres of meadows, forests, and wetlands in New Canaan, Grace Farms’ centerpiece is an 83,000-square foot serpentine structure aptly called the River. While the River is influenced equally by the work of modern American architects [and rivals] Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson [whose Glass House is just a stone’s throw away], the building is neither American-designed nor particularly modernist. Designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the prestigious Japanese firm SANAA [winners of the Pritzker Prize in 2010], the River may be the country’s most spectacular multipurpose facility, sparing no expense in creating an environment of extravagant tranquility.
While the River strives for naturalism, it’s far from a primitive space. All told, the ambitious project cost $120 million, including the sizable bill that comes with purchasing 80 acres of some of the country’s most valuable real estate. Conceived as a community center where “people can experience nature, encounter the arts, pursue justice, foster community and explore faith/’ Grace Farms is open to the public and features non-denominational Christian services.
While shades of a religious focus continually pepper Grace Farms’ publicity statements, the owners have been careful to stress that Grace Farms is not a church. Instead, it exists as a kind of intentional public space meant to foster exploration and examination. It houses a permanent art collection and access to many acres of wilderness for the public’s exploration and meditation.
However, thanks to the River’s distinctive design, many of Grace Farms’ pilgrims are of the architectural variety. With five glass-walled enclosures located at varying points on a winding pastoral slope, the River meanders back and forth, feeling both inside and out, both airy and enclosed. The River strives to be as minimal as it can possibly be, erasing itself where possible and offering organic textures where it must, wooden ceilings, glass walls, and concrete floors. The interior has the effect of a contemporary art museum: decidedly neutral.
The River’s pod-like enclosures include a basketball court, a 700-seat auditorium, a tea pavilion, discussion rooms, and a dining room. The single roof that covers the entire is lined with aluminum panels that reflect the changing Connecticut skies. If you were to fly over the River, you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for another body of water rather than a building-which is, of course, precisely the goal.
By following the slope of the land [the River has a change in grade of 43 feet over its course) and by eschewing traditional expectations of design [it has no clear entrance), the building is non-hierarchical and unobtrusive, encouraging visitors’ exploration of the nature around it. It’s not that the River has a lot of windows. It’s that the River is supposed to be one big window.
Herein lies the irony of the project. It’s an incredible, even ostentatious building that’s meant to be ignored-a spectacularly unobtrusive piece of architecture. The entire building is like a Zen koan. It’s more of a provocation or a meditation than an argument.
The current owners of Grace Farms purchased its 80 acres as a kind of statement. A developer was eager to bulldoze an existing equestrian facility and erect yet another subdivision of McMansions. This is a common story in this region of Connecticut, caught as it is between rural and outright suburban and very much prized for its proximity to New York City.
Grace Farms could have been yet another nature preserve. They’re a common enough way of maintaining green space and encouraging us all to get in the rare hike. However, Grace Farms and their flagship River building do something different. They ask fundamental questions: What should our relationship to our natural environment look like? Can a manmade structure blend seamlessly into its environment?
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