As US cities continue to expand, questions about the development of green spaces are becoming increasingly pressing for communities and architects alike. Yet, as David Bench discovers, the opening of a multi-purpose community centre in New Canaan, Connecticut this week sets a new precedent for suburban development in the region, much to the delight of both local residents and the architecture world.
New Canaan, Connecticut became the site of formal and social evolution in the relationship between architecture and landscape. This was initiated by Philip Johnson's groundbreaking modernist residence, the Glass House in 1949, which blurred the boundary between interior and exterior and set the stage for a proliferation of formalist exercises by other like-minded architects on former agricultural land around the town. In particular these included a series of significant modern houses by the so-called “Harvard Five” – including Marcel Breuer and Eliot Noyes – in which the Bauhaus ideology of Walter Gropius was first implemented in American residential architecture on a broad scale.
But not all subsequent residential development had the architectural integrity of these mid-century buildings; unfortunately, the vast majority ignored the sensitive siting of these iconic houses and instead transformed farmland into highly manicured suburban lawns with imposing neo-traditional homesteads of egregious proportions – a trend familiar across the country. With these two competing visions of pastoral domesticity, New Canaan is also the site of a duelling American dream, a battle which has depleted the once prolific farmsteads in close proximity to US cities and towns.
A new paradigm may be at hand with a project at Grace Farms by the Japanese firm SANAA. This 33 hectare landscape, highlighted by a curvilinear roof canopy which cascades down the hillside, was created out of a tract of old farmland which nearly succumbed to suburban development as has been too common in New Canaan. Its orientation is public and civic-minded, unlike the private development and individualistic ethos which is the norm. Its agenda, in the words of the Grace Farms Foundation, is to “experience nature, encounter the arts, pursue justice, foster community, and explore faith”, a simple statement of intent outlining an exceptionally broad agenda. So what is the background to this?
The story starts with Grace Community Church, a nondenominational Christian church, which was founded by a handful of New Canaan families in 2001. Its members purchased the current site as a gift of open space to the town and to the Church as a new space for worship. The Grace Farms Foundation was created to develop the property, with a name that references its use as farmland until the early 1990s. It subsequently served as an equestrian facility before almost being subdivided for suburban development.
The five-sided agenda – nature, art, justice, community, and faith – seems to have little contemporary precedent. The Foundation has noted a lack of models for such a development. Of course art and nature have long gone hand-in-hand, and we’ve recently seen a spate of blockbuster art spaces in landscape settings which continue this trend from the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Parc de Boulogne by Frank Gehry to the Parrish Art Museum by Herzog & de Meuron.
Rather it is the intention to be a space of justice, community, and faith that is so unique here and deserves note. This runs contrary to many big-ticket cultural projects of late which aim to replicate the success of something specific to one city with a duplicate project in another (how many cities have attempted to replicate the success of the Guggenheim Bilbao or the High Line in New York with their own museum-as-icon or park-as-urban route?). In its idyllic pastoral setting, in a district where there is limited public space, Grace Farms is intended as a gathering place for sharing ideas and hosting other local organisations to promote their causes. As noted by the Foundation, how this programming works is a work in progress but the space and the resources of the buildings will be available upon request, without fee. Early initiatives include a symposium next month which will launch a long-term initiative of Grace Farms aimed to combat child trafficking with the use of big data.
This mixture of programme and agenda does not so much reference other contemporary institutions, as that of the traditional role of churches in Western society. And while one may question the potential for a building to house both Christian faith and other cultural activities in our increasingly polarised society – for what might be the limits imposed on other types of activities and/or organisations? – there is no doubt that the phenomenal new building by SANAA seems to perfectly embody the breadth of the Foundation’s stated agenda. Their so-called “River” building creates a sheltering switchback along a steeply-sloping site and unifies a series of curved-glass rooms under a ribbon canopy.
The project successfully builds on earlier work by the firm. The use of fully-insulated curved glass panels is an evolution in the size, detailing, and thermal performance of the glazing at their Glass Museum in Toledo, Ohio. And the use of flowing, parallel floor and ceiling datums is spatially reminiscent of their Rolex Center in Lausanne. But while the Center is hamstrung by a myriad of internal stairs, railings, and (much-needed) accessible infrastructure, Grace Farms is remarkably clever in its use of topography. The individual enclosed spaces (a 700-seat amphitheatre, a library, a restaurant/community building, and gym) are located on level ground. The sloped site is negotiated in the open space between the buildings, a much more natural (and seemingly effortless) transition of elevation. The gym is half-sunken into the hill, preserving the canopy datum while providing enticing views of the space below from the covered walkway. It is a beautiful expression of openness and engagement – and a fitting space for public gathering.
The experience of the glass pavilions at Grace Farms is not entirely reproducible in photography. While the quality of construction does justice to the exactitude of the design, the spatial effects of the curved glass panels are remarkable for their subtlety. The straight panels are wide, and with their thin mullions truly break down the barrier between inside and outside. We are afforded a continuous view of the surrounding rolling hills. But the glazed panels slightly reflect the interior, more so when viewed in motion, giving the space a hint of enclosure as you register the geometric qualities of the room. With no other elements to distract, this sensation (while maybe not intended), animates the space and gives it a character that transcends a simple breakdown of a threshold. It is reminiscent of the best qualities of Dan Graham’s pavilions.
In its own way, the agenda behind Philip Johnson’s Glass House has itself been transformed towards similar goals of embracing community and site-specific public outreach. While it served as a cultural centre during Johnson’s lifetime, it was for the private, elite world of the mid-century avant-garde. The Glass House, now under the aegis of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, hosts public forums, symposia, lectures, and exhibitions that have brought the dialogue on art and architecture to the greater community – all with a specific reference to the historic house itself.
The success of Grace Farms seems assured given the enlightened pairing of a civic-minded enterprise, a roster of international designers and artists (including Thomas Demand, Teresita Fernandez, Olafur Eliasson, Susan Philipsz, and Beatriz Milhazes), and a beautiful bucolic site. The building by SANAA will build on the transcendent material effects of the Glass House while formally taking the next step by registering the surrounding topography as its curvilinear line spills down the hill – an embrace of the site in keeping with the programmatic intentions of the place.
The lessons from Grace Farms will not be in the specific mix of the programme or the cleverness of the building design. The project serves as one enlightened example of a force to counter the thoughtless development of our increasingly limited open space. But there will be very few situations in which the same dedication, financial resources, and natural beauty of a landscape will be readily available to other communities. As suburban and ex-urban development continues, the path forward is through innovative and site-specific uses of these threatened acres. Innovative buildings are certainly helpful, but the best answer might be in that element of programme most conspicuously missing from Grace Farms – the farm itself – and the promotion of small-scale, working agricultural spaces close to our urban centres. With the SANAA building at its centre, that would be an extraordinary, graceful new model for agriculture and would close the loop on our fraught relationship to architecture and landscape.
– David Bench is a registered architect in New York State and works for Selldorf Architects.