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SANAA’s Earth-Hugging Ode To Nature Fuses Architecture And Landscape

The Grace Farms Foundation in New Canaan, Connecticut, has a transcendent new home courtesy of Pritzker Prize–winning architects SANAA.

An arresting glass pavilion alights upon a rolling meadow in tony New Canaan, Connecticut. From afar, the structure, with its gleaming aluminum roof, takes on the guise of a silver river lilting through the pastoral landscape. Up close, it’s an elegant expression of Tokyo-based firm SANAA’s poetic sensibility.

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Indeed, Grace Farms serves a higher spiritual purpose—it’s home to Sunday services for the Grace Community Church—but at its core, the lithe structure is more about worshiping the physical surroundings.

Grace Farms, the River building

It’s the vision of Sharon Prince, president of the Grace Farms Foundation. She aspired to build a space that enables social justice, explores faith, fosters community, and champions nature. “It’s for people of all faiths—or no faith at all,” Prince says. “It’s a new kind of public space.” To accomplish the programming, Grace Farms enlisted Kenyon Adams to direct its arts program and Krishna Patel to spearhead justice initiatives.

Built to the tune of $67 million dollars, the 83,000-square-foot building encompasses a 700-seat auditorium; a library stocked with books on social justice, art, and religion; a common room with a cafe and seating for 300; a welcoming pavilion where expert tea masters serve top-notch brews; and a recreation center and media lab that’s sunken into the earth. A winding roof line stretches 1,400 feet—about a quarter of a mile—from one end of the building to the other, and it negotiates a 40-foot elevation change. Traversing the length of the building is meant to elicit pause and reflection. Because of the hairpin turns and switchbacks in the design, the building’s appearance shifts and the journey continually reveals new perspectives of the form.

Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa at Grace Farms groundbreaking© Lisa Berg

“It was one of the most beautiful sites we’ve ever been to,” Kazuyo Sejima, coprincipal of SANAA, with Ryue Nishizawa, says. “When we walked the grounds, it was apparent that the site would play a big role.”

Transparency is the building’s guiding mantra. To make the structure melt into its environment, the architects clad the entire building in thermal double-pane clear glass. The mullions joining the massive glass sheets are all but invisible, and structural columns are confined to the perimeter of the building thanks to extra-strong glue-laminated timber beams that span the length of the interior ceilings.

SANAA took great care to disturb the site as little as possible during construction, and the few trees that had to be cut down became custom furniture for the interiors. Fifty-five geothermal wells on the property provide heating and cooling, and high-efficiency electrical, plumbing, and mechanical systems help curtail resource consumption.

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Outside of the building, walking paths lead around the pond and meadows, there’s ample space for picnics and barbecues, and SANAA is at work on a playground for children.

“From an architectural perspective, it’s a miracle,” quipped Andrew Klemmer of Paratus Group, the project manager, during a tour of the building.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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