A Look at Connecticut's Grace Farms, a Studiously Calm Take on New Canaan Modernism
On a recent Friday, two black chartered buses, fresh from Manhattan, pulled up a road in New Canaan, Connecticut and parked between two restored barns located at leafy co-ordinates. The surrounding forest showed no signs of fall thinning, and just beyond the barns, a building snaked up a hill. The glass structure, resembling a continuous curved shelter, reflected all attention back to the New England green around it.
It was a rainy day, and water dripped off the roof in irrigated streams, at precise intervals, turning the building into something that resembled a Zen garden fountain feature. An uninformed visitor could have been forgiven for believing that they’d arrived at the nicest rehab center in America.
This is Grace Farms, a “welcoming new place for people to experience nature, foster community, pursue justice and explore faith, with artistic expression as a common thread.” In 2000 a California produce and farm-management company called Pacific Farms bought and rezoned an old equestrian property as a 10-lot subdivision—dismayed at the idea of the heritage land being broken up, a group of private Connecticut residents formed what’s now called the Grace Farms Foundation charity, and by 2009 had repurchased the 75 of the farm’s 80 acres of “rolling topography of paddocks and barns, field trees, perennially wet meadows and mixed deciduous hardwood and conifer forest edge," for around $40 million. In the subsequent years, residents oversaw the development of Grace Farms, what's essentially an upscale, well-programmed community center on a hobby farm.
Many of those who’d ridden the bus up from New York that Friday were architects, or worked for architectural publications. Grace Farms' “River” building, the form that curves in an attempt to blend with nature around it, was built by the prestigious Japanese architecture firm SANAA. Led by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, SANAA (the New Museum in New York and the Serpentine in London), was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2010, and is known for its sinuous, restrained artistic monoliths and public buildings.
The River—five hubs connected by covered pathways—house the facility's library, basketball court, auditorium, multimedia movie-making studio, art studio, discussion rooms, communal dining room, and sanctuary, which is used on Sundays by a non-denominational Christian church. The building is made of wrapped glass windows and sunken into the landscape, a modernist approach that makes sense for New Canaan, a modernist hub with more than 30 private homes designed by the “Harvard Five” (John M. Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson, and Eliot Noyes), including Phillip Johnson’s Glass House. (The Glass House can be toured, and the New Caanan Historical Society has a year-round exhibit of the moderns, plus a “Modern House Day Tour,” which passes by special examples in the area, usually led by a local professor or expert.)
On that Friday, the four site-specific artworks, by Thomas Demand, Tersita Fernández, Olafur Eliasson, and Susan Phillisz were unveiled around the grounds. In the auditorium, the Paul Taylor dance company had overtaken the basketball court, and, in sweatpants and t-shirts, were rehearsing for a performance for that evening. Kazuyo Sejima, one of the directors of SANAA, patrolled the wet grounds in suede Prada platforms, while the curatorial arts advisor, Yuko Hasegawa, walked alongside her in a bright pink coat. Both were greeting, gesticulating, accepting congratulations, and seamlessly fusing answers to technical questions about the building and installation with expressions of their enthusiasm and gratitude. A “meditation artist” sat at the top of the hill, in an impressive state of stillness, evoking a statue street performer.
There is “no front door” at Grace Farms, but if you enter from the road, the first post of the river building you’ll come to is the Pavilion. Behind a bar in the Pavilion, Johnny Fogg, a tea master from Brooklyn, stood whisking bowls of matcha. He had studied the art of the tea ceremony for 13 years, he explained, including a one-year scholarship of intensive study in Kyoto. This was not, he wanted everyone sitting at the bar to know, any approximation of the real tea ceremony. This was just people sitting at a bar drinking matcha—a bowl of which, apparently, is supposed to be consumed in three and half sips (it took me five). There is no menu at the tea station; it's meant primarily to be a place for people to stop and reflect.
Later, on stage in “the sanctuary,” during the consecration of the center, Prince, in a brown suede sleeveless dress and knee-high boots over black tights, described Grace Farms as “a type B experience for type A people.” There was a two-minute exegesis on the height of the stage—the exact height of a Broadway stage (to connect audience and performers, though not too much). Behind the stage, a leafy and uninterrupted view of the area of the property called “the pond” stretched out.
On each seat of the seven hundred seats of the sanctuary was a small square book containing thirty-five poems on theology, chosen by Christian Wiman (of Yale Divinity School). There are no page numbers in the book; Prince explained that this was a deliberate decision for non-linear reading experience—but if you flip to somewhere in the middle of the book, it might just open to a two-page poem by Yehuda Amichai, translated from Hebrew by Chana Blocj, that begins “a man doesn’t have time in his life/ to have time for everything.”