Can you give me sanctuary, I must find a place to hide,
A place for me to hide Jim Morrison
I wrote in an earlier post that “organized religion has been responsible for the majority of our great works of architecture, from Chartres to Ronchamp. The awe that one feels in these spaces is intended to glorify God.” I have been forced to consider what this might mean in 2015 America after visiting Grace Farms, a recently opened “faith and justice based” project in New Canaan,Ct.
The structure is comprised of an 88,000 s.f. swooping roof meant to emulate a river under which five glass enclosed pavilions enclose the program spaces; a tea room, a basketball court, a cafeteria, a library/bookstore for the arts and social justice, and a 700+ seat sanctuary/indoor amphitheater. Visitor welcome centers, classrooms, art studios and performance rehearsal spaces are accommodated in the renovated horse barns adjacent to parking lots. After walking through the spaces and exploring the beautiful property I was left questioning just what the actual purpose of this $80,000,000 structure might be. One can’t help but wonder if the building isn’t simply an impressive show of ego on both the clients and architects part.
The intentions of the project are undoubtedly good. The foundation aims to “support initiatives in the areas of faith, the arts, justice, and community.” The 80 acre parcel was purchased by the foundation after the previous owners had subdivided the property to 10 home sites. The development would have greatly altered the bucolic nature of its surroundings. On the day I visited perhaps 150 people strolled the grounds and buildings snapping pictures, discussing how it was built and by who, and generally taking in the spectacle of the building. The question that remains to be answered is how the increased traffic and flow of visitors to such a high profile destination will affect that same tranquility.
Ted Loos, in his review for the New York Times wrote: “The project was initially approved partly for religious purposes. The myriad functions of Grace Farms even stumped the architects at first “When we first met with Sharon, it was difficult to understand what Grace Farms was to be,” Kazuyo Sejima, the co-principal of Sanaa, said in an email. Now that the project is completed, she added, “it is clear that what they had in mind the whole time was a new kind of public space.”” I feel it important to consider that the main program spaces for the community programs are not housed in the main building but in the preexisting barn buildings, still heated by oil and physically distinct, separated from the pristine modernism of the new building.
And yet the building seems almost embarrassed to admit that it was ever considered to be a spiritual space. This is a structure that strives through machine detailed perfection to rejoice in the intellect. It is the ultimate statement of ego over spirit and is being highly touted as a great piece of art. Architectural Record writes that “the River makes no attempt at monumentality or grandeur.” This approach also denies an opportunity to enhance the visitors connection with the mysteries of our universe.
The connection with nature is strained as one can never ignore the building. By dividing the program into discrete pods the size of the building has been increased and its effect on the natural setting has been vastly increased. The “river” divides the site and demands that ones full attention is given to the building. From inside the pods the view is drawn out to nature, but the perfection of the engineered structure separates us from it. The vicissitudes of nature are forbidden from entering the pods and rational logic reigns. It is as if nature and the mysteries of the universe are simply artwork to be visually witnessed but not experienced. The wonder one senses is in the manmade, elevating the intellectual ego above the emotional reality of spirituality.
It can also be seen as telling that the landscape has been mechanically contoured to allow the building to exist, that climate is programmatically ignored by divided and individually heated glass pavilions, and that other than the use of geothermal heating and cooling in the River Building there is no evidence that renewable and local sources of energy were considered.
James Russell, a preeminent architectural critic, writes glowingly of the building as a work of architecture yet feels compelled to conclude his review of the building by stating: “Grace Farms feels as if it exists mainly for the edification of its wealthy founders and benefactors. That’s because it was located not to bring its worthy programs to many, but as the most lavish imaginable defense against development.”
And so the truth will out. The property was originally bought to protect it from development by its’ wealthy neighbors. This is not a bad thing. The new owners desired a center for their work towards social justice and non denominational faith. This is a great thing. In doing these wonderful things the ego snuck in and took over the project. The need for recognition from the social and aesthetic powers that be became paramount, and true spirituality is lost.
The ego is constantly searching for any solid and superior identity. A spiritual self-image gives us status, stability, and security. There is no better way to remain unconscious than to baptize and bless the forms of religion, even prayer itself, instead of surrendering to the Substance Itself. Richard Rohr