Contextually Modern Architecture: Grace Farms, New Canaan CT

Modernist architecture of the River Building.

New Canaan CT has a rich history of mid-century modern architecture.  The River Building at Grace Farms adds to this history with its contextually modern architecture. By incorporating transparency and connectivity, the serpentine building is responsive to the mission of Grace Farms while retaining its modern roots.  

Exterior glass façade
Exterior glass façade 2

Mid-century modern architecture

New Canaan, Connecticut is known for its modern architecture such as the iconic Glass House by Philip Johnson built in 1949. 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 that 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

Contextually modern architecture

Fast forward to the River Building at Grace Farms by Pritzker Prize winning architect SANAA to see how contextually modern 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 its terrain. 

Interior assembly space
Interior assembly space 4

SANAA’s architecture erodes the boundaries between interior and exterior and allows an individual to reconnect with nature. Major program spaces such as the sanctuary, library and community space are housed in transparent glass volumes. They create opportunities for community interaction as well as offer settings 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

Transparency and connectivity

The mission of Grace Farms is to pursue peace through nature, arts, justice, community and faith. By incorporating transparency and connectivity into its architecture, the River Building responds admirably to the mission of Grace Farms.

  • Title image:  Image of Grace Farms, Connecticut.  Credit:  Jllm06, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Common
  • 2   Exterior glass façade – By Jllm06 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50768633
  • 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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87551856
  • 4   Interior assembly space – By Karl Thomas Moore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49370348
  • 5   Exterior serpentine walkway – By Karl Thomas Moore – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=58969873

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