Landscape and Sanctuary: Grace Farms

Volume 49, Issue 1 :: By Karla Cavarra Britton

At Grace Farms, the line between indoors and outdoors is tenuous, as ‘The River’ building flows across the landscaped site.

At Grace Farms, the line between indoors and outdoors is tenuous, as ‘The River’ building flows across the landscaped site.

The relationship of landscape to religious architecture was re-addressed in fertile ways in the period following the Second World War. Vincent Scully, for example, following from his book The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods, sought to treat landscape and temples as an architectural whole. Looking anew at ancient temples, pyramids, and kivas, he read sacred architecture in outline against the sea or sky, and in relation to plain, hilltop, mountain, and mesa. His examples were drawn not only from ancient Greece, but also such disparate sources as the Valley of the Kings of dynastic Egypt; pre-Columbian America; and the Tewa and Keres Indian pueblos of New Mexico. The natural landscape’s relationship to sacred architecture, he argued, is often of paramount importance, for it embodies double meanings reflective of both the deity in nature and the god as imagined by humanity. Observing this link between landscape and temple as compact images of act and will, Scully argued, we may see the best man-made forms in their true dimension: not separate from the world but understood in balance with it, reflective both of what “men are and can make.”[1. Vincent Scully, The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods, (Trinity University Press, 1962, reprinted 2013), xvii.]

Similar metaphorical suppositions were also addressed by Le Corbusier through his intense engagement with the site for the chapel at Ronchamp, begun in 1950 and described by him in a single sentence: “Ronchamp? Contact with a site, location in a place, eloquence of a place, word addressed to a place.”[2. Quoted in Danièle Pauly, Le Corbusier: la chapelle de Ronchamp, the chapel at Ronchamp, translation to English by Sarah Parsons, (Birkhäuser, 1997), 62.]

1. Sanctuary; 2. Library; 3. Office; 4. Commons; 5. Pavilion; 6. Court; 7. Hall | Rehearsal Space; 8. Meeting Rooms; 9. Art Studio; 10. Plaza; 11. Offices; 12. Lounge; 13. Athletic Field

1. Sanctuary; 2. Library; 3. Office; 4. Commons; 5. Pavilion; 6. Court; 7. Hall | Rehearsal Space; 8. Meeting Rooms; 9. Art Studio; 10. Plaza; 11. Offices; 12. Lounge; 13. Athletic Field

Taking inspiration from the temples of the Acropolis as “landscape’s reason,” Le Corbusier designed his chapel in response to the contours of the mountainous setting. Here the building famously draws together the cardinal points and the horizons, encapsulating his concept of “ineffable space” as an appeal to the acoustics of the landscape. This acoustic analogy was developed in his account of the relationship of the building to its surroundings: as he wrote, Ronchamp was “an acoustic landscape, taking account of the four horizons; the plain of the Soane across from it, complementing the Ballon d’Alsace, and, on the sides, two valleys. We will create forms that will respond to the horizons and welcome them in.”[3. See Josep Quetglas, “Ronchamp: A Landscape of Visual Acoustics” in Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscape, ed. Jean-Louis Cohen (MoMA, 2013), 212-218.] The outside, in other words, is also always an inside.[4. See Le Corbusier’s sketches titled, “The Outside is always an inside,” in Precisions on the Present State of Architecture and City Planning, originally published in French 1930 (MIT Press, 1991), 78-9.]

A quintessential interpretation of Le Corbusier’s principle of the outside/inside space comes in Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut—a glass temple structured so as to combine the interior with the exterior in the same space. Johnson intended the Glass House to be “skin and bones architecture,” setting its rear façade facing onto a sharp bluff, and on the opposite side giving it a view of the valley and a placement within its repoussoir of giant trees, approached through the meadow and copse. The entire relationship of the house to the sacred grove is—as he indicated in an essay in Architectural Review in September 1950—shaped by a lexicon of landscape types derived from the English 18th-century landscape tradition, as well as Schinkel and Ledoux, the Baroque, the oblique view of the temples of the Acropolis, and even the spider web-like forms and footpaths of Le Corbusier’s Farm Village Plan of 1933.

Charting these key explorations of the basic relationship between landscape and sanctuary in the post-war period helps provide one historical perspective on Grace Farms, a new center for nature, arts, justice, community, and faith (located not far from Philip Johnson’s Glass House) in New Canaan. Sited on a former 80-acre horse farm, Grace Farms was designed by the prominent Tokyo-based firm SANAA, working in collaboration with the Philadelphia-based landscape architectural firm OLIN.

Both the land and the building are a gift from the non-profit Grace Farms Foundation to the New Canaan community. Grace Farms has provided space grants to 42 not-for-profit organizations, including Grace Community Church. The form of the building is comprised, according to the architects, by their calculated intention to follow the contours of the sloping ground, offering dramatic views of the meadows, wetlands, and trees. Since the building’s opening in October 2015, the popular media and the architectural press have already paid considerable attention to the sinuous, transparent form of “The River,” as the building is called, and its client’s deliberately stated intentions for an unbounded and hybrid program.

Yet already upon the approach to Grace Farms there are unmistakable hints that this building does not conform with the same kind of close reading of the relationship between landscape and temple as represented by Scully, Le Corbusier, and Johnson. The landscape does not represent either the human will and potential as expressed by Scully, nor the philosophical objectives of concordance expressed by Le Corbusier, nor the appeal of a set piece for historical landscape types as expressed by Johnson’s Glass House. Rather, Grace Farms seems to confirm that a major realignment is currently underway in the study of concepts of the sacred and its relationship to architecture—one in which place, pluralism, and attention to the abstractions of nature have displaced the idea of a House of God.

For the popular imagination SANAA’s architecture may be readily associated with a late-capitalist Shinto aesthetic, in which there exists an aura of restraint and minimalism and an overt attention to allowing nature itself to speak of a kind of sacred essence. Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the lead architects of SANAA, have found their greatest opportunity to date for building in this vein in this Connecticut landscape haven, where relative isolation (despite being located in suburban New Canaan) is one of the major characteristics of the site. Nature plays the determinative role in The River. Grace Farms is intended as simultaneously a nature preserve and community cultural center. The River building is essentially a long, low roof that protects a serpentine building sheathed in glass. There are transparent “pods” that enclose the programmatic spaces of Grace Farms: an auditorium (or worship space), a gymnasium, a library, kitchen and dining room, and tea house—each comprised of custom-designed glass panels. Yet there is a focus placed on “openness.” For SANAA’s two partners the idea of openness was underscored as well in their 2002 design for the New Museum in New York: “We design museums that concern themselves with the future by thinking about openness, which manifests itself as room for new possibilities…. ”[5.“The artwork is never an added difficulty,” Conversation with Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, in SANAA: Sejima & Nishizawa New Museum New York (Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, 2010), 15-29.] The River reflects this same intention to house any number of possible cultural functions, and so it deliberately lends itself to the spiritual projections of its visitors rather than suggesting any fixed denominational point of reference.

In terms of “new” and experimental paradigms for religious buildings, it would be difficult to find a more conceptually revelatory example than Grace Farms. For while a portion of its building is overtly given over on Sunday morning to serve as a worship space, Grace Farms eschews in name and description any deliberate programmatic emphasis on liturgical functions. Instead, this project has multiple goals including communal gathering, artistic exploration, service, and the consideration of social justice. Indeed, the building’s very name—The River—signals a geographical landmark open to continuous interpretation. In this regard the self-descriptive “Architectural Directive” of Grace Farms is telling: “To create a venue of cultural interest and curiosity via open space, architecture, art and design in hopes of providing people with a chance to do the following: 1. Experience Nature … 2. Participate in a Meaningful Community … 3.Serve Others. . . 4. Explore Faith …”[6. Grace Farms, publicity brochure published by the Grace Farms Foundation, n.d.]

The worship space itself transfers one’s attention away from the interiority of the building and any specific focus on the program of liturgy, toward the impinging spiritual presence of the natural world outside (whether it be a summertime field of green and wild flowers, or a winter scene of snow and ice). Here the ambiguous religious associations of the building are informed by the deliberately ambivalent assertion that nature itself will be a driving spiritual force behind the architectural form of this “church.” Although Grace Community Church (the independent religious organization that inhabits the space) describes itself as “a church of action founded on Biblical truth characterized by faith, grace, community, service, authenticity, clear thinking, and cultural relevance,” one might observe that architecturally The River moves far beyond that intention by introducing a spiritual interaction with the natural environment as the backdrop, taking many of the performance-oriented aspects of the auditorium/worship space and putting them in relation to the landscape. So while the ethos of Grace Church is self-consciously oriented toward an emerging church ideal of the cultivation of community as “God’s dream for mankind [sic],”[7. Grace Community Church Mission Statement,] The River itself is ironically most strongly evocative of a more animistic ideal that is essentially individualistic and anonymous in character.

Aerial view of ‘The River,’ barns, and pond. Photo: Iwan Baan

Aerial view of ‘The River,’ barns, and pond. Photo: Iwan Baan

Grace Farms may be seen to pursue a cosmogonic model that merges the secular and the spiritual in the same place. Kenneth Frampton has described the sacred work of the Japanese modernist master Tadao Ando in relation to the term “secular spirituality.” With this deliberate tautology, Frampton argues that Ando’s work touches on the crisis that lies at the heart of a good deal of the late-modern world, where the continued existence of the sacred and profane can only be postulated in an environment in which consumption has come to dominate every form of human activity. In what is familiar to us by now as the idea that institutions such as the art museum stand in as the “surrogate religious institutions of our age,” he observes that spirituality itself has become one such form of aesthetic consumption, driven by an intention to overcome the split between the sacred and profane, and the body and soul, that are central to the ethos of monotheism. In terms reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe’s assertion that the spirit must nevertheless be given continued opportunity for existence, Frampton reads Ando’s work as an alternative attempt at transcendence that substitutes a symbolic nature worship for overt references to the sacred.  In today’s cultural environment, given the public’s ambivalence to overtly religious evocations, The River might be understood as leaving tantalizingly open the question of how the religious community for which the building is intended will choose to inhabit the space. Perhaps what one sees at work is that the idea of a temple where human activity is directed toward the gods has been supplanted with an architectural conception of sacred space that functions instead as a means of sacralizing human activity.

The author is a lecturer at the Yale School of Architecture in New Haven, Connecticut, and can be reached at