We proposed a building that spreads beneath a long, undulating roof, which follows the landscape and floats in the center of the site. Winding and crossing the hills freely, this wood-frame structure, now known as the River, creates many covered outdoor spaces while also forming courtyards. Interior programs under the long roof are wrapped in glass volumes organized according to their character and use. There are five such glass-enclosed volumes hosting a variety of activities and events that are in harmony with Grace Farms Foundation’s initiatives for nature, arts, justice, community and faith. These volumes are a Sanctuary, which also serves as a 700-seat amphitheater-style performance space; a Library with volumes curated around the Foundation’s mission areas and a glass conference room; a Commons dining and living room with a fireplace, 18-foot-long communal tables made of wood from trees preserved on site; an intimate Pavilion where tea services are offered; and a partially submerged Court, a multi-functional recreational and performance space. In addition to the River building, an existing barn was renovated to serve as a warm welcome center and offer spaces for day-to-day programs, with classrooms, art studio, rehearsal room, offices and drop-off food pantry to support the justice program. Grace Farms also offers a community garden, panoramic vistas, ponds, a one-mile walk in the woods, athletic fields and open courtyards.
The private, non-profit Grace Farms Foundation sought to preserve the last undeveloped 80 acres of woodlands, wetlands and meadows in New Canaan, CT, as a gift of open space to the public. The Foundation wanted to create a porous building within this beautiful, rolling landscape that would invite people to experience nature while providing a place to foster community, participate in social justice initiatives, enjoy artworks and cultural presentations and explore faith. The program called for an architectural and landscape design that would be a new model of cultural and community center merged with nature. New Canaan provided a context where Eliot Noyes, Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson and others helped to rethink residential modernism in the U.S. Mies was a direct influence in New Canaan through Johnson. The architectural design for Grace Farms builds in part on Mies's legacy, including his 1928 vision of a skyscraper with curved glass. Although Mies and Johnson were not direct models, they helped set the aspiration for transcendent lightness: of a structure that would float on the landscape while also being full integrated with it. The Foundation’s desire to preserve open space led to the decision to keep approximately 77 of the 80 acres unbuilt. Trees that were cleared for construction were milled on site to construct the furniture for Grace Farms, including 18-foot-long community tables. Fifty-five 500-foot-deep geothermal wells were drilled for heating and cooling. Seventy percent of previously mowed areas have been returned to natural meadows.
Since opening to the public in October 2015, Grace Farms has functioned as both a peaceful respite and a place of vibrant activity. The River building draws people in to engage with the site’s natural landscape and serves as the springboard for the mission and programs. Within the first six months, approximately 50,000 people visited Grace Farms to participate in architectural tours, community dinners, lectures and discussions, concerts, athletics, and worship services--or to explore the 80-acre site on an individual basis. Grace Farms allows visitors to shape their own experiences, with the River building encouraging a sense of freedom and unstructured time and drawing people out into the landscape. Grace Farms Foundation has selected more than 40 not-for-profit organizations to receive grants of program space at Grace Farms, encouraging social good and collaboration for good across its five initiatives of nature, arts, justice, community, and faith. To date, nearly 1,000 people have engaged with the Justice Initiative to disrupt and eradicate human trafficking, and many have commented on the restorative quality of Grace Farms. Another principal beneficiary of program space is the local, non-denominational Grace Community Church, which uses the River’s Sanctuary on Sundays.