If there were any architecture firm equipped to design a building with the ironic prompt to “make it blend in and draw people outside,” it’s Pritzker Prize-winning Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA. Grace Farms Foundation, a private nonprofit organization, selected the Japanese firm to design a multipurpose building for an 80-acre farm property in New Canaan, Connecticut.
“It was extraordinary that even though they were halfway around the world in Tokyo, they understood that we were trying to create a place of porosity, while also being in harmony with the landscape,” Sharon Prince, president of the Grace Farms Foundation, said.
The resulting 83,000-square-foot glass structure is divided into five volumes that curve through the property on slender columns. An anodized aluminum roof mirrors the surrounding trees, and at night the reflective curving light resembles the geographic feature for which the building is named: the River.
Walking through the building, there are moments where the structure curves back on itself, so much so that one can not only see views of the surrounding trees and meadows, but of the people inside as well. This is a signature SANAA move: Redirecting sight lines to the people who use the building to the extent that they become part of the architecture themselves.
From end to end, the River undergoes a 43-foot elevation change. Although the building is approximately 1,400 feet long, the switchbacks throughout make the overall footprint only 700 feet long. Mostly local red oak ceilings and floors add warmth to the steel, glass, and concrete elements.
Keeping a minimal footprint was paramount, as Grace Farms wanted little disturbance to the surrounding land. To that end, SANAA worked closely with landscape architecture firm OLIN to integrate community gardens, athletic fields, and trails within the natural and architectural spaces. A one-mile ADA-regulation walking path connects from one end of the building and leads back to the other end, creating a seamless loop from indoors to out. Most of the previously mowed green spaces will be rehabilitated into meadows. In 2016 a SANAA-designed playground will be built on the site.
Aiming for LEED certification, the Foundation had 55, five-hundred-feet-deep geothermal wells installed. The 203 panes of glass composing the exterior walls are double-glazed with a specially engineered spacer. Several black locust trees that had to be removed for the building were kiln-dried on site and reused as 18-foot-long community tables.
“We wanted a building that would blend in with the natural surroundings and draw people into the landscape, which is exactly what Sejima and Nishizawa have given us,” Prince said. “For example, the covered walkways shield you from the weather but also allow a more direct interaction with the landscape all throughout the year.”