Grace Farms up for architecture award
Updated 12:02 pm, Thursday, July 28, 2016
NEW CANAAN — The River Building at Grace Farms lives up to its name.
Not so much a building as an extended roof, the structure snakes around the property like a river, covering a compact gravel pathway with metal chairs and fire pits. There are no walls, save for those of the glass pavilions, and no real door, so patrons can enter the structure at any point. Its glass rooms and wooden rooftop seem to blend in almost seamlessly with the fields and trees around it, especially on a clear summer day — and that’s exactly the way Sharon Prince, president of the Grace Farm Foundation, wanted it.
“We didn’t want the building to dominate the space,” said Prince, who helped come up with the concept for Grace Farms. “Instead, we wanted to create a space that merged with the landscape.”
With the help of its architectural firm, SANAA, Grace Farms succeeded, so much so that it has been nominated for an international architecture award within less than a year of opening.
Grace Farms was chosen from a list of 175 buildings in North and South America as one of seven finalists for the biennial Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize. The award, created in 2013 by the Illinois Institute of Technology and its dean, Wiel Arts, recognizes the best architecture in the Americas built between 2014 and 2015. The winner will receive the Mies award, the Mies chairmanship at the institute for the following school year, and up to $50,000 in support of research and publication related to “Rethinking Metropolis.”
Grace Farms is one of two U.S. buildings up for the final prize.
“It’s exciting for us to see the jury’s recognition of us creating a new type of public space,” Prince said. “It’s recognizing what happens here too, and that’s what, I think, is really significant about this particular award: People recognizing the excellence of the architecture and design, but also how the architecture fuels what happens here and how people are responding to a place of grace and peace that’s not only helping the world, but welcoming all in one space that has multisector initiatives being accessed in one place.”
The concept of Grace Farms is unique among other community spaces. Not quite a park and not quite a community center, Grace Farms aims to touch upon five “initiatives”: nature, arts, justice, community and faith.
Visitors can act upon these initiatives in the glass pavilions under the River Building. There is a cafe where they can eat a light snack, a library where they can read or check out books and a 700-seat sanctuary where Grace Church, a nondenominational Christian group, conducts services. They also can wander the 77 acres of land Grace Farms owns, once used to board horses. Grace Farms donates many of the spaces to over 40 nonprofit groups and hosts everything from dance performances to weekly art sessions.
Prince said the elevating plane the building sits on and the use of glass in the architecture allows visitors to see what others are doing in other pavilions and encourages a more community-oriented space.
“You want them to see a new perspective and glass achieves that quite beautifully. The elevation changes also to afford (people) the opportunity to see what’s happening along the River Building. There might be a discussion in the library that you might never have known about, but now you see it, stop by, engage,” Prince said. “So the glass is an important part of shaping that experience.”
Gwen North Reiss, who works in public relations for Grace Farms, said part of SANAA’s approach was using materials in different ways. The firm also used clay brick, usually used for walls, as part of the flooring in certain parts of the pavilions. Furthermore, they designed some of the furniture pieces, including the metal chairs visitors can lounge in when sitting under the River Building.
But even if the firm, along with Grace Farms, does not receive the award, the group has already found great success since its opened last October.
“The building, the landscape and team have gone well beyond what we could’ve hoped for in a small period of time,” Prince said. “People responded so quickly and already consider it (a space) for their nonprofits to flourish. It’s very important to us to create a nexus of nonprofits to collaborate together, maybe help provide opportunities for their work to flourish.”