This week, the Tokyo-based firm SANAA released a proposal for its first building in the United States since its principals—Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa—won the Pritzker Prize in 2010. Located in New Canaan, Connecticut, the 65,000-square-foot glass, steel, concrete, and wood headquarters for the Grace Farms Foundation will wind its way along a piece of the 75-acre property owned by the nonprofit charitable organization.
Grace Farms Foundation purchased the property—parcels previously zoned for subdivision—in 2008 and 2009 in order to preserve the meadows, woods, and wetlands in perpetuity. After entertaining a controversial scheme by another firm that would have added onto an existing horse barn to create offices and community spaces, the foundation hired project director Andrew Klemmer, president of Paratus Group, to help determine whether or not to proceed.
Klemmer initiated a “re-set” and launched a full architectural search with the help of Bill Lacy, a professional advisor and a former executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize jury. Working with the Foundation, Klemmer and Lacy narrowed down a list of 25 architects and firms to four, and ultimately chose SANAA for its commitment to making “landscape an equal component of the design,” says Klemmer.
Representatives from the Foundation were impressed by the flow of people in and out of SANAA’s previous examples of transparent volumes, including the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan; Koga Park Café in Kantō, Japan; and the annex to the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. “We didn’t want architects concerned with the icon,” says Klemmer. “We were looking for someone who was willing to let their building disappear.”
SANAA also endeared itself to Grace Farms Foundation by beginning its design process with a master plan for the entire New Canaan site. “They understood how to use it and preserve it before they started talking about the building,” says Klemmer. Indeed, the rendering of the proposed structure shows that it follows a tree line and sloping lawns to create a path of enclosed, transparent pavilions. Appropriately dubbed the “River” and set in a landscape designed by OLIN, the building will house a sanctuary for the Grace Community Church, a library, gymnasium, dining hall, and meeting spaces that can be used by local nonprofit organizations. SANAA will also oversee the renovation of a large, H-shaped horse barn on the property, which will be altered but retained for offices.
The River may break ground in February 2013 and take two years to complete, says Klemmer, for an estimated cost of $50-$60 million. Despite a Pritzker-winning pedigree, the building shouldn’t be what visitors remember, he says. “The real story of the building is the primacy of the landscape.”