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River building at Grace Farms in Connecticut, USA, by SANAA

Gracefarms SANAA

‘Sejima lit up when we said we wanted Grace Farms to disappear into the landscape’

This project saw SANAA’s Kazuyo Sejima shortlisted for the Women Architect of the Year Award 2016

In its brief to Japanese architects SANAA  for an 8,000m2, $67 million community centre, Grace Farms Foundation didn’t specify that  it wanted a building that looks like a river. It didn’t even suggest the metaphor for  the 80 acres of rolling hills in New Canaan, Connecticut, a bucolic suburb of New York City. Charged with keeping the land open  and protected for the benefit of the larger community and the local Grace Community Church, the Foundation presented a programme for a building based on its  mission – a place where visitors and congregants could ‘experience nature, encounter the arts, pursue justice, foster community and explore faith’.

Local citizens of New Canaan had rescued the former equestrian centre from subdivision into residential lots and, in keeping with their idealistic programme, they aspired to an ecologically sensitive building with a light footprint, hiring Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA) in 2010 after an architectural search that started with 20 teams. ‘Sejima was the only architect who lit up when we said we wanted a building that would disappear into the landscape,’ says Sharon Prince, president of the Foundation’s Board of Directors. ‘SANAA’s design was a reaction to what we asked for.’

Gracefarms SANAA03

Gracefarms SANAA03

Source: Iwan Baan

Gracefarms SANAA Site plan

Gracefarms SANAA Site plan

Site plan

‘We didn’t talk styles,’ said Andrew Klemmer, President of the Paratus Group, a New York consulting firm that organised the project. Referring to the precedent of Philip Johnson’s Glass House (1949) and the other pavilions on his estate down the road, he said, ‘We didn’t even talk Modernism. We never talked about steeples or even stones and materials, but asked “What can you do on this property that you can’t do elsewhere?”’

But an architectural river now does run through the property, starting at its crown, where the roof of a glass-enclosed sanctuary flows down the slope via a serpentine covered walkway to four other pavilions, creating within the wide loops of switchbacks outdoor courtyards. ‘We saw the first model, and it  fit our aspirational and utilitarian goals,’ says Prince. ‘The architects were good at listening. They delivered in three dimensions our ideas and ideals for the place, without impacting the natural setting.’

‘The building augmented the landscape, intensifying it, like a Prairie Style house by Frank Lloyd Wright’

The architects conceived and sited each component of the programme – the sanctuary, library, commons, welcome centre, and gymnasium/multi-purpose space – as a glass-enclosed garden pavilion connected by  a continuous walkway that followed the hilly contours of the land. It began to look like  a river, and the architects brought out the resemblance, covering the meandering roof  in anodised aluminium panels that shine  like the surface of placid water in sunlight. The building augmented the landscape, intensifying it, like a Prairie Style house by Frank Lloyd Wright. The pavilions began to look like ponds connected by streams.

For SANAA, the leap into disappearance was hardly without precedent in its portfolio. The Minimalists have made their reputation, earning a Pritzker Prize in 2010, by dematerialising their buildings so that  mass disappears, leaving only shimmering reflections off glass in the midst of what  seem to be architectural fumes. Unlike  Philip Johnson’s Euclidean boxes, SANAA’s sinuous ponds and streams flow with the contours rather than sitting atop the land in detached geometric abstraction. The overall organisation resembles the scattered sequence of pavilions at Katsura Palace, which afford an unstructured, episodic experience of the artfully curated landscape.

Gracefarms SANAA Floor Plan

Gracefarms SANAA Floor Plan

Floor plan - click to expand

SANAA has understood the site with the Japanese sensibility that Frank Lloyd Wright exhibited in his rural and suburban buildings: the architects have created a building that honours the land by marriage. 

Sejima and Nishizawa played the landscape with the respect that a violinist would accord a Stradivarius. The architects capitalised  on the half-mile drive from the front gate on the inner edge of the property, setting their structure out of sight behind a running ridge. The road leads to a parking lot at the bottom of the site where two parallel repurposed horse barns from the property’s previous incarnation bracket a landscaped court that now frames a view of the river climbing upstream. Prince notes there is no front door to the barns or to SANAA’s new centre, implying the architecture is not directive: ‘Visitors experience the site as they choose,’ she says, as in nature. ‘We specifically asked for no front door.’ Both barns, with square windows where horses once looked out,  have been fitted out as classrooms, art studios, flex spaces and offices for the Foundation and for non-profits which receive ‘space’ grants to occupy the barns. The spaces inside are spare and minimal cubes under exposed gable roofs, with tables built from recycled trees felled on the site. The courtyard will be used as a farmer’s market for produce from its own gardens. 

Gracefarms SANAA04

Gracefarms SANAA04

Source: Iwan Baan

Uphill, visitors encounter the first of the  five pavilions, a small glass-enclosed welcome centre with a tea bar where the host, Frank Kwei, explains the ethos of the institution  and the architecture with a simple and unpretentious ritual of tea meant, he says,  ‘to reset the mind and open dialogue. It’s not a cup of tea to go; it requires people to stop and slow down and settle into a stillness’. During the 20-minute ritual of preparing first-flush estate teas in artisanal cups, he explains the idea of slowless, of shedding the city to change your frame of mind, noting that in Asian culture, water and its flow are valued. 

The moment prepares visitors for what will presumably be a thought-provoking visit to buildings offering social, spiritual and cultural programmes in a context emphasising the environment. From the vantage point of  the tea bar and its garden of Arne Jacobsen Petal Chairs, the architecture indeed does disappear, with only warping reflections  from the curving glass separating the visitor from the rolling fields of native grasses  and trees, landscaped by OLIN, with Dennis McGlade the partner in charge. The pavilions were designed from the viewpoint of visitors looking out.

‘The building will come between a person and nature, so we thought of ways one could be in touch with the landscape through the architecture’

‘Of course the view of the building is important, especially how it is integrated into the surroundings,’ says Sejima. ‘But at the same time, how people interact with nature from inside the building is also important. The building will come in the way between a person and nature, so we thought of ways one could be in touch with the landscape through the architecture.’

Two corridors lead from the tea pavilion, one to an all-purpose gym and community room, used for receptions, arts performances and recreation. To keep the height of the curving roofscape low but to accommodate the needs for indoor sports, the architect submerged the room a storey, leaving the storey above ground glazed, a tall clerestory flooding light into the hall below. 

Gracefarms SANAA02

Gracefarms SANAA02

Source: Kelly McGarvey

A second breezeway leads from the welcome pavilion to the commons, a large free-span open space entirely surrounded, as in all the pavilions, by double-paned floor-to-ceiling panels of butted curving glass. With nothing in the room to call attention to itself, not even discreet structural details, it defers to the views outside but only after conditioning visitors with a feeling of warmth and intimacy: the 4.25-metre ceiling is relatively low, and surfaced – as in all the pavilions and walkways – in Douglas fir that tints the light warmly. The rows of long common tables where people who don’t know one another  can sit together are crafted from trees removed from the site to make way  for the building. 

The next pavilion up the slope is the library, with a glass-enclosed meeting room set within the glass-enclosed building. Further up the slope lies the final pavilion, a 700-person sanctuary, where seats arranged in a semi-circular configuration on a sloping floor focus on the stage, and then, through a backdrop  of glass walls, to the view beyond. Here the architects have finely calibrated the height  of the roof within inches, to frame the view  so that the edge of the roof clears the tree  line and floats over the panorama.

An inverted truss keeps the roof from billowing up and over the clean  straight profile the architects have rigorously maintained.

Gracefarms SANAA05

Gracefarms SANAA05

Source: Iwan Baan

As in all the pavilions, the clarity of the design, the total absence of any fuss – no ducts, no structural knuckles, no colours even – and the deference to the panorama of nature outside, breeds serenity. ‘The space encourages contemplation’, says Prince. ‘You’re looking at the fall leaves, the red-tailed hawks, the pond down the slope, and you enter a different state of mind. We’ve brought parents from the Sandy Hook tragedy in Newtown here, and it seemed to be restorative. Like the other pavilions, it piques your curiosity, heightens the senses, makes you receptive to a larger order of things, and leaves you with a sense of calm. With all our gadgets today, we’re nature deprived, and a space like this plants you in nature.’

‘Sejima would come and say the pavilion had to be rotated several degrees - she curated the views’

Breaking the programme into separate pavilions gave each its autonomy and identity; each was designed to be site specific: ‘Sejima would come and say the pavilion had to be rotated several degrees to the view, or the roof raised several inches’, says Klemmer.  ‘She curated the views.’

‘We made adjustments to the roofline in accordance with the topography, so that  it would not block the view, or so it won’t stand out too much,’ says Sejima.

Gracefarms SANAA Section

Gracefarms SANAA Section

Section - click to expand

At the same time, the Minimalist simplicity, as though cleansing the palette, somehow clears the mind making it receptive to programmes hosted by the Foundation.  Some are emotionally sensitive, such as sessions dealing with sexual trafficking in Connecticut, an issue in its social justice initiative. The breezeways between pavilions, and the pathways cut through grasses in  the landscape, create the peripatetic experience that the ancient Greeks believed conducive to thinking. 

Sometimes using a metaphor to motivate  a design actually makes it a one-liner or cliché, but in SANAA’s treatment, the river  as metaphor was ex post facto to a well-developed parti that matured further into  the site through the metaphoric push. Nature here is enhanced by a river the site doesn’t have, and at the same time its sinuous agreement with the topological contours achieves the integration into nature that was the basis for preserving the site in the first place. The architects substantiate the environmental mission by designing the building to LEED standards. Fifty geothermal wells, 150 metres deep, heat and cool the complex. A simple and elegant design,  surely, but SANAA has used minimal means instead of Minimalist formulas to achieve a comprehensively holistic design that sustains nature and achieves programmatic goals. Though beautiful, with curves turning against curves as in a Baroque church or on country roads in a hilly setting, the architecture subordinates itself to the landscape, and  to the people it places in the landscape:  ‘It’s people in architecture, not architecture with people’, says Sejima.   

Grace Farms

Architect: SANAA

Executive architect: Handel Architects 

Landscape architect: OLIN

MEP engineer and lighting: Buro Happold

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