Pritzker Prize-Winners SANAA Discuss Their Mind-Blowing Design for Grace Farms in Scenic New England

Add to
By Allie Weiss / Published by Dwell
The award-winning Japanese architecture firm celebrates 20 years of practice with a thoughtful Stateside commission.

Known for asymmetrical structures that subvert traditional rules of space, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, of renowned Tokyo-based architectural practice SANAA, are now bringing their forward-thinking vision to the verdant pastures of New Canaan, Connecticut. For the first time since winning the Pritzker Prize, in 2010, the firm returned to the USA to design Grace Farms, a spiritual center and community gathering space that opened in October 2015. We asked the architects to tell us about the meandering 83,000-square-foot facility.

Dubbed The River, Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa’s design for Grace Farms traverses a 43-foot elevation with gently sloped walkways. The duo’s last U.S. building was the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City, completed in 2007.

Grace Farms offers faith-based programming, art installations, an area for communal dining, athletic facilities, and more—all open to the public. How did you create a structure that would feel welcoming to all?

SANAA worked with landscape architecture firm OLIN to ensure that the structure, located on an 80-acre property that includes 16 acres of native wetlands, would respond well to the surrounding landscape. A Douglas fir canopy runs the length of the building.

If a building is surrounded with walls, so that one cannot see the inside, people feel uncomfortable entering unless they have things to do there. However, if you can see from the outside the bustle of people coming in and out, it feels a lot easier to enter. We thought that the feeling of activity and the motion of people would help foster and expand the community.

German photographer Thomas Demand captured Farm 56, an image of a pile of building plans, which will be showcased as part of Grace Farms’s public art program.

Were there any challenges with building the structure into the hillside?

“We wanted to build a place where people could feel respect for the environment.”—Ryue Nishizawa, architect

It was not an easy task, as it is essentially a 3-D building. But in order to respect the beauty of the topography, we did not consider building a flat structure. We thought that a building built in accordance with the steep topography could create a more interesting relationship between nature and human beings.

Glass is commonly featured in your work. How did you use the material at Grace Farms? 

By using a mix of both straight and curved pieces of glass, we aimed to create a soft and natural shape instead of a geometric shape, such as a square or a circle. Glass is both transparent and reflective, and we thought that, due to these two qualities, one could feel the harmony between architecture and nature.

How is being an architect in 2015 different than it was in 1995, when you started your practice?

In Japan in 1995, we were in the middle of a terrible economic depression, but at the same time, it was a period when architecture was an important part of the capitalism movement. Now, after the economic crisis and the Tohoku earthquake of 2011, the situation has changed a lot. Of course, there are buildings built for economic rationales, but there are also buildings created to support community and local areas. We have entered an era of diversity, when architecture is not measured according to only one criterion.