New Cannan CT has a couple of architectural jewels. One is The Glass House, designed by architect Philip Johnson, his home for many years. I visited the Glass House and will write a blog and upload a gallery in the near future. But this blog is about the other architectural jewel, Grace Farms and the River building. It does look like a river when viewed from higher elevation as it winds it’s way through the green hills and meadows. Grace Farms, the River as seen from the bottom. The Court at right, the Pavilion at left And I would have no issue if it was called the Snake. But 'the River' fits much better with the vision of Grace Foundation and the architectural firm that took on the project. That firm was SANAA. Led by Pritzker Prize winning architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa and a staff of 25 in Tokyo, their designs are, in the words of the Pritzker jury, “The buildings by Sejima and Nishizawa seem deceptively simple. The architects hold a vision of a building as a seamless whole, where the physical presence retreats and forms a sensuous background for people, objects, activities, and landscapes.” Some of their notable designs are The Serpentine Galleries in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, Central London, The Louvre-Lens in Lens, Pas-de-Calais, Northern France, The Rolex Learning Centre ("EPFL Learning Centre") in Lausanne, Switzerland and The New Museum of Contemporary Art, in New York City
In 2010, Grace Farms Foundation, selected SANNA to bring to life their vision for a flourishing place and multi-purpose building where visitors could get close to nature, explore the arts, pursue justice, be part of a community and explore faith. The building would blend effortlessly into the landscape with minimal interference, taking advantage of the landscape and its topography. Basically it is a single long roof that meanders its way across the landscape connecting all-glass rooms, some very large, others on a smaller scale. The structures are made of glass, concrete, steel, and wood. Grace Farms is a non-profit center dedicated to advancing faith, nature, arts, community and justice initiatives. The center is owned and managed by Grace Farms Foundation, a private organization, which encourages individuals and institutions to collaborate for good at the local, national, and global level. The 80 acre site also includes a walking trail and 75 of the acres are left in a native state made up of hills, meadows, ponds and wetlands.
As you leave your car in the parking area, the first buildings you see are the two ‘barns’. In the West Barn you’ll find the Welcome Center, an art studio, classrooms, a rehearsal space and a number of meeting rooms for both public and private programs. The community church is also located here. The East barn holds offices for the staff.
Grace Farms, the River, the Pavilion Depending on which way you walk once out of the West barn you may come across the the Pavilion. It is the smallest glass-enclosed volume of the River buildings. It is a space where people are welcome to relax, have a conversation with others, sit in Arne Jacobson Swan Chairs and sip some tea from a tea bar. It offers 360 views of the grounds from anywhere in the room.
Grace Farms, the River, down on the Court Short walk to the right and at the bottom of the River, you’ll find the Court, a multi-purpose recreational/gym and event space. It is below ground level but it’s surrounded on all sides by glass, allowing natural light to filter in and also for those walking outside to peak in and see what’s going on in the gym. It could be pick-up basketball, pickleball, volleyball and other sports. There’s a mezzanine with tables and sitting for board games, studying, and spectators. It’s a very bright and pleasing space with gorgeously varnished 85-foot long GLU-LAM beams and wood paneling.
Grace Farms, the River, the Commons Following the River upstream, passing the Pavilion you’ll com up on the Commons. It’s a central community gathering place where fresh food and beverages are available for purchase for lunch or for a light snack. For large groups there are 18-foot-long communal tables made from red oak harvested on site. Some of the produce used in the Commons kitchen comes from Grace Farms’ Community Garden or sourced locally. For those who like sweets, pastries are made on-site daily. My lunch there was a delicious tomato soup, two pieces of fried chicken on a Portuguese roll with lettuce and grilled vegetables. For desert, a gluten free tart which tasted pretty good. One level below, either by stairs or elevator, you’ll find a 42-seat lecture hall for curated visual programs, training, and various presentations. As you walk the River there are also some round concrete buildings. Those are for bathrooms and elevator access.
Grace Farms, the River, the Library Further up the River is the Library. With all-glass walls it’s a space where one can read, study, hold a meeting in the small conference room, work or relax near the fireplace during winter months. Books in the Library are available for purchase and loan, and mostly cover the initiatives at the core of Grace Farms: faith, nature, arts, community and justice. In the middle of the Library is the Justice Bar with mixed media resources to learn about the global crime of human trafficking and modern day slavery.
Grace Farms, the River, inside the Sanctuary At the top of The River you’ll find the Sanctuary. It’s a 700-seat indoor amphitheater that naturally slopes downhill. From the seats one can see the expansive views of Grace Farms’ natural landscape. Performances, lectures, workshops and a variety of activities are held here. It seats a maximum of 700 people. When I visited on a weekday there was nothing really going on there. However there was a sound installation by Julianne Swartz. Interestingly the sound installation was also available in the Library via specially designed audio boxes that one would hold to the ear to experience the sound installation without interfering with the folks in the Library. The view from the Sanctuary is spectacular. One can see the River as it winds and meanders its way all the way down to the Court.
I also went on the hiking trail. It’s about one mile or so and winds its way around the property around a couple of ponds. I didn’t see much wildlife on the short hike. The trail is not marked very well and you may find yourself in the backyard of a neighbor. I did see a pair of Red-tailed hawks. One of hawks was enjoying a just-caught bird. One of the staff told me there’s wood ducks there in the spring.
Grace Farms, the River, the Pavilion as storm approaches Grace Farms, a beautiful, inspiring and uplifting place. For what the Grace Foundation stands for, and for the unique architectural design of the River. To me it’s also about all the curves, light and shadow at different times of the day. And as the day turns into night, the warm glow coming from the lights in the River buildings brings a bit of magic to the place. A place to experience by oneself or share and enjoy with others, view from different vantage points, study, photograph and contemplate.
An extensive photo gallery of Grace Farms can be found here.