A Walk In The Country
Discovering Grace Farms
Copyright Vladimir Kagan, December 10, 2015
…. By mid-afternoon the weather had turned to glorious sunshine - just in time for our visit to the newly opened Grace Farms. Most people have never heard of Grace Farms as it had only opened to the public a few weeks earlier.
photos Dean Kaufman
Like all architectural masterpieces, Grace Farms would not have seen the light of day without its patrons.
Versailles, had King Louis XIV, the Louvre with gratitude to Napoleon. The Parthenon in Greece, the Pyramids in Egypt, the Coliseum in Rome, all had their benefactors. The ‘Glass House’ owes its existence to the wisdom of Philip Johnson’s father, who bestowed some ‘worthless’ Alcoa stock onto his son.
Below is the history of Grace Farms.
Grace Farms had the gracious support of Grace Farms Foundation, a private operating foundation established to support initiatives in the areas of faith, the arts, justice and community. This vast project was quietly underwritten by a discreet group of like-minded individuals, who thought saving a sprawling landscape, once used as a private equestrian training facility, from a developer’s 10-lot subdivision, and opening it to the public as a shared space was a worthwhile endeavor.
In 2009, the leadership of the Foundation initiated an international search for an architect to develop the idea of Grace Farms. The Foundation selected Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of Tokyo to design this sensitive project. Shortly thereafter, their firm, SANAA was awarded the most coveted prize in architecture, the Pritzker!
Quoting from Grace Farm’s brochure, it is “A welcoming new place, where a building designed by SANAA is seamlessly integrated into 80 acres of open space for people to experience nature, encounter the arts, pursue justice, foster community and explore faith”. Faith was an underlying factor: Back in 2007 a group of individuals affiliated with Grace Community Church, purchased 48 acres of property with the intention of gifting it as open space for the town. In 2009, these individuals formed Grace Farms Foundation, which purchased 27 additional acres and gratefully accepted the donation of the original 48 acres. The concept of Grace Farms became a reality.
photo Iwan Baan
The delicate River Walk snakes down the hill - all five buildings of the 'Farm" are integrated under the one slender roof
The River consists of five glass-enclosed volumes that are virtually transparent - nestled under a sensuous continuous roof that flows down the slope like a lazy river and becomes a part of the landscape. The River begins on a knoll, and then flows down the long, gentle slope in a series of bends, forming pond-like spaces (volumes) on its journey. The River uses only a fraction of the property’s acreage so that it totally blends into the countryside. The rolling hills and changing seasons becomes the artistic palette for visitors to enjoy. The pebbled path gently winds down the hill like the river’s dry-bed cutting its path lazily into the valley. The buildings are enclosed by 203 slabs of curved thermal glass panels each custom fabricated in Germany and Spain – none are duplicates of the other, neither in size nor shape!
I was fortunate to have my electric tricycle in the trunk of the car, as the hill to the top of the property would have been too much for anyone to push me in a wheel chair. Along the way I snatched the one man in the complex who turned out to be ‘The Guru’ of all that I needed to be explained about Grace. Bill Stonebridge had been the construction manager during the two and half years of its building and now was in charge of maintenance of the entire facility! I bombarded him with tons of question.
What’s the walkway material that looks like pebbles but feels like a carpet? “Resin Bonded gravel.”
Where’s the lighting? “Primary lighting is recessed into the floor surfaces and small surface-mounted spot lights reflect off the wooden ceiling"
How does the roof drain? “The project uses a New England gutter which directs water to several open scuppers where water gracefully cascades into gravel drains.”
How do the glass windows keep from compression fractures? “The windows are not load bearing. Each panel is constructed of the double glazed thermal glass.”
How’s the place heated – is it energy neutral? “Fifty-five Geothermal wells were bored 500 feet into the ground, to provide heating and cooling for all but one building - making the entire complex energy neutral. Grace Farms has applied for LEED Certified for High-efficiency mechanical, electrical, plumbing and lighting systems.”
Bill had more precise answers and additional information as we meandered up the ‘River’.
What happened to the forest? “In clearing the site, a number of magnificent red oak trees, birch, hickory and ash had to be cut down, but they were not wasted. Seven eighteen foot long dining tables were custom fabricated out of the felled oaks and other furniture is custom built out of the other woods.”
How is snow removal done? “The long winding covered pathways are carefully cleaned by hand as it is too risky to use conventional snow blowers where a small pebble could crack one of the curved glass panels.”
“And the Chapel? Called the Sanctuary, the multi-purpose amphitheater stands on the top of the hill and seats 700 people in comfortable Thos. Moser armchairs. Thoughtfully, the Sanctuary has a glass enclosed “quiet room” where parents can take a screaming child until it calms down. This Sanctuary volume has the longest unsupported (Glu-Lam laminated) timber beam roof of the five River volumes, which was custom fabricated in British Columbia and transported by specially modified trucks across Canada to New Canaan.”
While I was wanting more, poor Amy was agitating to go home as it was getting close to cocktail time and her evening date.
This will not have been my last visit to ‘Grace Farm’. I hope you’ll be inspired to see it yourselves.
The Glass House and Grace Farms offer a perfect study in contrasts from the mid-twentieth century to the twenty-first. Compare the ethereal serenity of the Grace Farms ‘River Walk’ with the celebratory styles of the ‘Glass House’ and you feel the dichotomy of our times.
This statement does not hold true for most 21st century architecture – by contrast, look at the monumental projects that Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid have created.
While the ‘Glass House’ has an impressive baronial drawbridge barrier that is majestically lifted to admit invited guests, the entry to Grace Farm is accessible through a modest white gate and a drive down to the old stables. These buildings have been converted into modest offices and programming space. There is no ticket-office as the admission is free. The property is open and available to all who come.
photo Dean Kaufman
Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of the firm SANAA - The Tokyo architects that designed Grace Farms and won the coveted Pritzker Prize