New Modernist Architecture: Grace Farms, New Canaan CT

New Canaan CT has a rich history of mid-century modernist architecture.  The River Building at Grace Farms adds to this history with its serpentine structure completed in 2015.  The River Building takes the modernist ideologies one step further.  Its form not only follows its function but also follows the topography.   

Exterior glass façade

Exterior glass façade 2

Mid-century modern architecture

New Canaan, Connecticut is known for its modernist architecture built during the middle of the century.  The iconic Glass House by Philip Johnson built in 1949 is one shining example of such architectural projects.  Philip Johnson was a member of a group which became known as the Harvard Five.  In addition to Philip Johnson, the group included John M. Johansen, Marcel Breuer, Landis Gores and Eliot Noyes.  Marcel Breuer taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, while Gores, Johansen, Johnson and Noyes were students there. 

All of them were influenced by Walter Gropius, who was the head of the architecture program at Harvard from 1938 to 1952.  Walter Gropius was the founder of Bauhaus – an influential modernist art school that operated from 1919 to 1933 in Germany and united all branches of arts under one roof.  “Among his most important ideas was his belief that all design—whether of a chair, a building, or a city—should be approached in essentially the same way: through a systematic study of the particular needs and problems involved, taking into account modern construction materials and techniques, without reference to previous forms or styles.”  (Harvard Years, Britannica)

Retreat at Grace Farms

Retreat at Grace Farms 3

New modernist architecture for our time

Fast forward to the River Building at Grace Farms by Pritzker Prize winning architect SANAA to see how the modernist architecture at Grace Farms captures the spirit of our time.  In his book “Towards a New Architecture”, Le Corbusier wrote that “Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style.”  In that sense modern architecture constantly reinvents itself, as we move from one epoch to another.  SANAA’s interpretation of modern architecture took some liberty with the elemental forms and simple geometry of midcentury modern structures, with its serpentine structure hugging the topography of the landscape and in harmony with its surroundings. 

Interior assembly space

Interior assembly space 4

SANAA’s architecture erodes the boundaries between interior and exterior and allows an individual to ponder relationship between the individual and the nature. The glass volumes for sanctuary, library and community space create opportunities for community interaction as well as places for meditation.  SANAA’s architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa describe the architecture “as a seamless whole, where the physical presence retreats and forms a sensuous background for people, objects, activities, and landscapes.” 

Exterior serpentine walkway

Exterior serpentine walkway 5

Extending “form follows function”

A key principle of modernist architecture is that ‘form follows function’, meaning that design should derive directly from its purpose.  The River Building takes this ideology one step further by allowing the architecture to follow the mission of Grace Farms as well as the topography.  The River Building seems to float above the natural landscape as it twists and turns across the site. The interior volumes are remarkably transparent and invite people to make connections with themselves as well as the natural surroundings. 

  • Title image:  Image of Grace Farms, Connecticut.  Credit:  Jllm06, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Common
  • 2   Exterior glass façade – By Jllm06 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
  • 3   Retreat at Grace Farms – By J. Nathan Matias from Boston, USA – Retreat at Grace Farms, CT in the fall of 2018., CC BY-SA 2.0,
  • 4   Interior assembly space – By Karl Thomas Moore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
  • 5   Exterior serpentine walkway – By Karl Thomas Moore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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