The River Runs Through It

BILL STONEBRIDGE WAS FAMILIAR WITH THE ASTONISHMENT.

In the months leading up to the opening of Grace Farms, his crews were in a deep sweat to finish the startling affair dubbed the River. Visitors in hard hats would gape at the slender building that snakes down old farmland like a cataract of glass. The best part? “The looks on people’s faces when they saw it for the first time,” says the director of facilities, whose team had been hammering away at the  structure. Designed as the centerpiece of eighty-acre Grace Farms, the River is a quarter-mile-long, glass-walled work of art that some are calling an arresting leap in architectural form.

Grace Farms, located at New Canaan’s north end near the New York state line, opened to the public just months ago. Should you visit, good luck explaining the River to your friends, as you’ll want to do. It’s not easy describing such a bracingly original creation. Within are unusual spaces like the sanctuary, which functions as community theater and house of worship for nondenominational Grace Community Church. It’s positioned at the River’s highest elevation. As you gaze down at the stage, try not to be hypnotized by the view beyond. A wall of curving glass reveals an immense panorama. Of course, you don’t see the wall; instead you take in a mighty, moving canvas of wild grass rolling down to a distant forest of pines.

Somebody at Grace Farms clearly had a lot of vision. The River, by the way, is not a church, although a congregation will use the sanctuary on Sundays. Nor is Grace Farms a public park. “It’s a private property open to the public,” says Sharon Prince, president of the board of directors for the Grace Farms Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2009 to support initiatives in the areas of faith, the arts, justice and community. Also on the board is her husband, Robert Prince, a partner at Bridgewater Associates, the Westport-based hedge fund. The development at Grace Farms was made possible by some ninety local philanthropists who wanted to see it happen, says Michael Chen, formerly of GE Capital and now contributing time as a strategist. The cost of the River itself was $60 million.

Located off Lukes Wood Road, the property had been occupied by farmsteads for 300 years. In 1991, Windsome Farms bought it and built an equestrian facility. In 2000, another group acquired the land and rezoned it for a subdivision. Then, in 2007, individuals affiliated with Grace Community Church purchased forty-eight acres to preserve them in perpetuity as a gift of open space to the community. In 2009, these individuals formed the Foundation, which purchased twenty-seven more acres that year, the remaining five acres in 2015, and accepted the donation of the original forty-eight acres.

Sharon Prince has been working on the project since 2007. A cheerful geyser of energy, in earlier days she was founding U.S. president of the outerwear company 66°North. Her effervescence is a good thing, since nothing about Grace Farms is simple, save the blessings of nature. One day, just prior to the opening of the site, Prince offered a tour. “We’re trying to create a new kind of space, one that’s creative and welcoming,” she explained exuberantly, as she walked through a grove of trees, wearing a flowing dress that somehow complemented her construction boots. When they imagined the building, Foundation members didn’t want the old formal columns. Rather, they hoped it would be a “porous membrane,” says Prince. We stood atop the hill so we could take in the vista. Ahead of us was the gleaming River. She looked avidly at her visitor’s face, which was surely agape in amazement.

When the Foundation went looking for an architectural firm to bring their vision to fruition, they decided on SANAA, the Japanese team of Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa. “We asked them to allow the building to disappear into nature,” Prince says. “Most architects aren’t thrilled with that concept, but we wanted the space to be a peaceful respite where people would be drawn out into nature.”

Off to the right was a spectral stand of black locust trees with flights of wild birds threading the branches. Down the hill to the west were two long buildings that had once been horse paddocks. One was now for church offices, and the other for dance, painting and other artistic endeavors, even just plain old deep thought. Although, it all seems clearly designed for deep thought.

“It’s quite daring,” says architectural historian John Morris Dixon, with approval. And it all fits in perfectly with New Canaan’s history of divergent aesthetics. This town, after all, was once the headquarters for the provoking school of home design that was advanced after World War II by the architects known as The Harvard Five. Built with bold planes of glass, the structures fairly shouted across the landscape that this nation was on the march. Dixon was in New Canaan as it happened. “We can thank people like Thomas J. Watson, who built IBM nearby and brought hundreds of residents to this area,” Dixon says. “They had modern tastes and influence.”

There are a few iconic moderns here. Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1955 beauty on Frogtown Road is one of them. Another is the Gores Pavilion in Irwin Park. And of course, there’s the Philip Johnson Glass House. Now, there is the River, which gives New Canaan even more street cred as a suburb on the cutting edge of architectural design. And the style is not remotely at odds with New Canaan’s evolving attitude. Here you have a beautiful garden spot in the country where big-city minds are at play.

SANAA just got it, says Dixon. “If you look at two of its designs —the Glass Museum in Toledo and the Rolex Learning Center in Switzerland—you can see how the architects have been moving forward with these glass motifs. This earned for them the Pritzker Architecture Prize, which in our field is the closest thing to a Nobel.”

In the Rolex Learning Center, it seems the architect’s pen actually let loose a stream of liquid silver. The River continues that glittering line of thinking. When you look down on it from the hilltop, you see an anodized aluminum roof that’s like a pool of mercury. Taken with the building’s glass walls, the overwhelming sensation is that of a reflection mirroring back sky and trees. If glass and aluminum were the River’s only surfaces, the result would be only an unyielding hardness. But the saving grace here is the way the structure is buttressed by interesting uses of wood. Just below the roofline, for instance, is a bright band of wood that lends a touch of jauntiness, like the brim of a hat. The touch was no accident. When SANAA architects were given their marching orders, they were reminded that Connecticut is a forested land, a fact that should be woven into the theme. That’s why some of the furnishings here were made from oak trees harvested on the site.

“We brought in a sawyer to cut the wood, and then kiln-dried it for six months,” says Stonebridge with pride. While the wood furniture adds a warm touch, the happiest use of timber is in the ceilings. As you walk the length of the River, you cannot escape noticing the canopy above you. Long beams of Douglas fir are fit together and resemble a logjam in a stream. Wood is a critical component in the santcuary, too. With the huge view, you probably won’t notice the wood ceiling, which has a microporous surface designed to absorb sound. While the glass walls create a perfect-looking hall for a concert, hard surfaces make for echoey acoustics. It’s not unreasonable to expect there will be later consultations with acoustic technicians.

Ingenious touches abound. In the grounds that border the walkway beneath the roof canopy, for instance, are circles of crushed white rock about the size of manhole covers, only beautiful. Their purpose? Just look up at the side of the canopy; you see open pipes. Rainwater is carried from the roof, out of the pipes and down a focused waterfall into the white rocks, where it’s drained. Elsewhere in the canopy are illumination points that will certainly transform this into a nighttime cathedral of light.

Taking SANAA’s surreal vision and transforming it into, well, not brick and mortar but glass and cement, fell to the New York-based Handel Architects. “It was a big team effort,” says Handel’s Peter Miller. “For instance, the glass. They knew the shape, but not how to make it environmentally friendly, or even how to make it.” Miller describes a tidy adventure in which the glass started out in England as flat panes put through a process to remove iron and make them crystal clear. These were sent to Spain and laminated to provide better insulation, then put into ovens to add the curves. The next step was Germany to acquire aluminum shoes and a crew to install it all in New Canaan. The result? A see-through building. The joints connecting the panes are less than an inch thick.

“Making an invisible building is one of the hardest things you can do,” Miller says cheerfully, noting that you can’t just put a bathroom or janitor’s closet any old place. “The most important part of this project was to make it blend into nature, to make it disappear. SANAA’s philosophy has always been about lightness of space, pushing the envelope of architecture to make it as thin and ephemeral as possible.”

Grace Farms gets its heating and cooling from thirty-two geothermal wells. While the underground aquifer was useful for climate control, it intruded in other areas. The lowest building in the River is a basketball gym situated below ground level. The Court, as it’s called, has a big skyscape around the ceiling. “The gym is fifteen feet below the surface,” Miller says. “That’s in the water table. The thing would float out of the ground like a boat. So we had to come up with some solutions to tie it to the ground.”

As for the grounds to the east of the River, they’re being sculpted by the Olin Studio and aided by Larry Weaner Landscape Associates. Where there were once riding areas for equestrians, there is now thick grass growing. A walking lane has been barbered through the brush around the pond. When strollers alight on this path, they will hear another work of art in the air, a two-minute sound show from an installation by Scottish artist Susan Philipsz. And when the evening sun goes down, a landscape of light called “Suspended Rain” will be presented by the canopy, the work of the artist Olafur Eliasson.

As with everything else at the River, inspiration comes from many directions. Visitor Michael Chen stands under the canopy and gestures around. “In a cathedral,” he says, “you look up at the majesty. Here, it’s designed so that you look through the beauty of it, out into the beauty of nature.”

 

 

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