An extraordinary facility opened in New Canaan last weekend: Grace Farms. The 80-acre site is owned and operated by the Grace Farms Foundation, open to the public and will host activities and events in the areas of the foundation’s core initiatives — nature, the arts, justice, community and faith — some ticketed, many free or at minimal cost, such as a Community Dinner from 6 to 8 pm on Thursday, Oct. 22, priced at $6 for children, $10 for adults.
The foundation is a separate entity from the Grace Community Church, which conducts Sunday morning services and has a permanent space grant (offices and classrooms) onsite. As foundation President Sharon Prince put it at the inauguration, “The foundation wanted to preserve the property as open space and use it for the greater good… to create a place where people can experience nature, foster community and faith, get involved… It is for people of all faiths, or none at all. Our goal is to create a calm but vibrant community.
“The initial intent was to blend architecture with nature,” she continued. “We wanted to create a new kind of space to embody peace and grace into the world, to highlight what is beautiful. There was no model for this; we started in 2010 with the idea of wanting to serve the greater good; the result is a three-dimensional expression of an idea. From the process point of view, everything went well; the dialogue was incredible and the result something everyone involved is proud of.”
The bulk of the property is a nature-lover’s delight of rolling topography with fields, trees, woods and meadows dotted with several ponds. The primary structure is a low, winding, glass, metal and Douglas fir series of multi-use enclosed spaces and covered walkways called the River, totaling 83,000 square feet and occupying just three acres.
The River was designed by SANAA (Sejima and Nishizawa and Associates), a multiple award-winning architectural firm based in Tokyo, Japan, founded in 1995 by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, who were the 2010 recipients of the Pritzker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious architecture awards. The landscape architect was Olin Studio / Larry Weaner Landscape Associates. The elevation drops about 1,400 feet as the River meanders downhill, and there are parking lots on both ends.
At the top of The River is the 20,900-square-foot Sanctuary, a 700-seat sanctuary/indoor amphitheater; the curved stage is 18 inches high, and the audience looks through the glass wall to the nature beyond. There are only a couple of curtains, placed to block sun glare where needed.
Next is the 4,550-square-foot library and research center, then the Commons, a 14,400-square-foot space that has a massive dining room and living room that can accommodate 300, and a lecture hall on the lower level. Designed to be the hub of social activity, the Commons’ 18-foot-long red oak communal tables were built from trees harvested on-site. It also has a coffee bar, sofas and a fireplace, and features an art installation titled Double Glass River by Teresita Fernandez, which comprises hundreds of mirrored cubes mounted on a curved wall.
It is one of three current permanent installations — the others are Olafur Eliannon’s Mat for Multidimensional Prayers, seven mats that rest on the Sanctuary stage when it is not in use, and a three-channel sound installation at the Cattail Pond by Susan Philipsz; several minutes long, it plays every 15 minutes; two more installations will be added next year. Yuko Husegawa, chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Toyko, is Grace Farms’ art curator.
The 950-square-foot, oval-shaped Pavilion is a staffed welcome center where coffee and tea are available, and tea is served in a ceremonial manner from 10:30 to 2:30 Tuesday through Saturday.
The 16,900-square-foot glass Court is a partially below-grade gymnasium, multipurpose room with grade-level mezzanine that enables observation or socialization. It also has locker rooms, a media lab and a game room, as well as movie screen. A barbecue pit (more of a bar), just behind the Pavilion, is a place for picnics and other outdoor activities, and athletic fields will be added later. And what look like subway entrances dot the landscape; they lead to below-grade bathrooms, storage rooms and other facilities.
Visitors can see into and out of every River enclosed space; parents can watch their children from a distance; a number of activities can take place simultaneously and be standalone or interconnected.
Sustainability was key to the River’s design, and it will be LEED certified in several areas. Heating and cooling, for example, are provided by 55 geothermal wells.
Two former barns that held 50 stalls and 10 of the 24 paddocks from the property’s days as an equestrian facility have been retained, and the barns, now called the East and West Barns, have been renovated into offices and meeting and rehearsal rooms, including one with a sprung floor, an art studio, lounge, nursery and a drop-off food pantry to support the justice program.
Collaborative artist and arts advocate Kenyon Adams is director of art initiatives. The recipient of a National Young Arts Foundation Award, and named a White House Presidential Scholar in the Arts, he is also currently artist in residence at Yale Institute of Sacred Music.
“I am very excited about the relationship between Grace Farms and Yale, this opportunity to mix arts with the other initiatives, to show the important role of the arts in all activities, how access through the arts helps make things tangible, understandable,” Adams said. “This is a place where artists can come to be whole people, involved in the greater good, and can focus on their creativity and using their gifts to give perspective. We call what we are doing here invitations, not bookings; there will be constant dialogue with everyone present, things will build on each other and we look forward to discovering what may evolve.”
Krishna Patel, formerly a deputy chief, National Security & Major Crimes at the Department of Justice, has recently been appointed director of justice initiatives at Grace Farms, which will launch its programs next month. One of the initial areas in which this sector will work is to help reduce human trafficking, especially of children.
“People, agencies are bringing us ideas that they had no space for before,” said Prince. “One of the first was Arts for Healing. Ideas germinate; once people understand what we are, they want to participate or contribute. For example, Joseph Apuzzo, Jr., president & CEO of Armenia Coffee, approached us and said he wanted to create a coffee that he would give to us; he wanted to donate it as a way to give back for all that he has been given. Heavenly Roast Coffee supports justice and community programming by sourcing the best Arabica bean from sustainable, women-owned Rainforest Alliance Farms. Heavenly Roast serves as our model in sourcing from women-owned businesses in developing countries to produce the highest quality, high design socially conscious products.
“Grace Farms is a prototype that will be used in ways that people can’t imagine; it is an exciting challenge. We have seven building with different uses; we are learning how much to program, how much to rest. We want people to experience Grace Farms as they choose; this will be a meaningful community. We are at the beginning of a journey, a part of bringing more grace and beauty into the world.”
Grace Farms is at 365 Lukes Wood Road in New Canaan. Its website, gracefarms.org, lists hours of operation, a calendar of events, information on the five initiatives, related programs, how to get involved and much more; the telephone number is 203-920-1702.