Connecticut's Grace Farm is a Modern Take on the Classic Town Square

Grace Farm Community Centre in Connecticut

This community centre in the United States is a model of faultless sustainable design, says Melbourne-based architect Sean Godsell.

Grace Farms is a fascinating take on a town square

Completed seven years ago in New Canaan – a town of just over 20,000 people in Connecticut in the United States – the property calls itself a community centre but it’s more sophisticated than that. It includes a library, café, lecture theatre and an indoor sports centre. There are undercover outdoor spaces that roll into gardens and studios for artists to hire. Historically, small towns had a meeting place and this building brings that idea back into people’s thinking.

It’s a privately funded project accessible to the broader populace so is a remarkable act of philanthropy

It was the result of like-minded community members pooling their resources. The commission went to Japanese firm SANAA around the time it was awarded the 2010 Pritzker Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of architecture.

The Grace Farms building is exclusively glazed on its perimeter

It has a serpentine form that cascades down a slope and is known as the River building because SANAA’s idea was to emulate the course of a river. Glass was chosen to make it dissolve into the landscape and disappear. In this time of climate change, glass in buildings is a complex problem because it’s a relatively poor thermal insulator.

New Canaan has remarkable examples of Mid-century Modern architecture, including Philip Johnson’s Glass House

SANAA may disagree but I see a corollary between it and the River building. The challenge of the Glass House in the 1940s was the use of glass in a climate where it snows. By tackling that problem with double glazing and a geothermal-powered “thermal curtain” that combine to minimise heat loss, SANAA took Johnson’s building and advanced it by 70 years. The result is elegant and functional.

It’s a beautifully constructed building

The people who delivered it deserve equal credit with the architects who conceived of it because it’s superb. When you get to a certain stage as an architect, you zoom in on the faults in your own and others’ work. I spent hours at Grace Farms and I couldn’t fault the River building. It’s an extraordinary effort and a simple yet complex form.

The Grace Farms group has a declared agenda of ethical design

In terms of the environment and also when buildings are constructed; the architects take responsibility for ensuring that the materials aren’t the result of modern slavery. There’s a nobility in their concern for making the world a better place and to follow that through to the procurement of building materials is unusual.

Sean Godsell established his design practice in Melbourne in 1994. He was commissioned for the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2018 and this year was awarded the Gold Medal by the Australian Institute of Architects.

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Image credit: Dean Kaufman

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