Rural Visions

Grace Farms and Rural Studio would seem to be perfect architectural embodiments of the extreme inequality of wealth that afflicts the world today. But maybe it’s not so simple.

SANAA, Grace Farms, the River Building New Canaan. [© Iwan Baan]

On a brilliant, crisp Saturday in late winter, I went with friends to New Canaan, Connecticut, to visit the New York area’s latest architectural pilgrimage site, Grace Farms. “Eighty acres of open space for people to experience nature, encounter the arts, pursue justice, foster community, and explore faith,” Grace Farms boasts an extraordinary building by the architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, practicing under the name SANAA. Dubbed “The River,” the structure consists of a sinuous wood-framed roof, supported by slender steel columns, that snakes down the sloping site and, at different elevations along the path, shelters a set of volumes enclosed in curved glass. As  described on the Grace Farms website, the design brief called for the fluid integration of inside and outside, and on this the architects deliver in almost comically literal fashion: The building resembles nothing so much as globules of viscous water entrained between the parallel planes of the ground and roof.

I need not waste words on description; images of the building are widely familiar, thanks to the lavish attention that the project has received in both the architectural and popular press. To visit the place in person, though, is rewarding; to experience the radical extreme of transparent architecture — introduced to this part of the world half a century ago by Philip Johnson at his neighboring estate — and to marvel at the construction technique (Sciame was the builder). The glass is indeed astonishing — panels ten feet and taller of curved, double-paned thermal units, joined with silicone and set into channels recessed in the wood ceiling and concrete floor. Exquisite details that only a specialist would notice abound. The inside borders of the super-clear, low-iron glass sheets, for example, are fritted an opaque gray in order to mask the separator between the two panes. This is all emerging glass technology, and the architects and fabricators (the curved, insulating panels were assembled in Spain) push the material to its limits. 1 Or perhaps beyond; in at least four of the monumental doors, we noticed that the curved glass had evidently broken and been replaced with temporary acrylic.

I vacillated between admiration of the virtuoso technique and a queasy sensation induced by the ostentatious preciosity of the ensemble.

But such flaws are few, for Grace Farms strains toward perfection. Located at the top of the hill, the largest component of the complex is a beautiful space called the Sanctuary. A 700-seat amphitheater with wraparound views accommodates the Grace Community Church’s Sunday services as well as lectures and performances. I am sure it will become the region’s premier wedding venue. On the afternoon of our visit, the choreographer Bill T. Jones was getting ready for a performance entitled “Practicing Empathy.” Eager docents urged us to sit up front for the maximum participatory experience. We moved on. Lunch in the dining pavilion was delicious; the short menu bulked out by detailed descriptions of the organic, locally sourced ingredients. We sat at a SANAA-designed refectory table fabricated from trees harvested on site. I loved the gymnasium at the foot of the hill. A continuous ribbon of frameless curved glass at ground level forms a clerestory that fills the below-grade court with natural light and allows views in from the outside. I wondered, though, about the kids playing basketball down there, since most families in the neighborhood surely have basketball courts at home. We could not enter the pod that contains the library. “This volume is closed,” read the sign inside the door; seeming to signal that the architecture here is so evolved that the terms “room” or even “space” no longer apply. In truth, by the end of our tour my feelings were profoundly mixed, vacillating between admiration of the virtuoso architectural technique and the serene beauty of the setting, and a queasy sensation induced by the ostentatious preciosity of the ensemble.

SANAA, Grace Farms, The Sanctuary. [© Iwan Baan]

SANAA, Grace Farms, the River Building, Court. [© Iwan Baan]

SANAA, Grace Farms, The River Building, Commons. [© Iwan Baan]

The Grace Farms Foundation selected SANAA to design its building shortly before Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa were awarded the Pritzker Prize, in 2010. The award citation states, in part, that the SANAA partners “seek the essential qualities of architecture that result in a much appreciated straightforwardness, economy of means and restraint in their work.” All this may be evident in their earlier projects, which I greatly admire, but at The River at Grace Farms these “essential qualities” are nowhere to be found. Far from straightforward, the building is extraordinarily complex and convoluted, and the illusion of simplicity was achieved only through the extravagant application of technical and financial means. It’s as if the celebrity of the Pritzker and the seemingly unlimited budget of the Grace Farms Foundation gave the architects license to abandon any restraint in pursuit of their particular vision of ethereal, dematerialized form-making. The result is absolutely spectacular, in the root meaning of the word, but it cannot be called straightforward, economical, or restrained; although these desirable qualities might advance the conceit of soignée rural simplicity at Grace Farms, which wafts more than a whiff of Marie Antoinette.

To build a ‘community center’ such as this, in one of the wealthiest and most privileged communities in the United States, seems of questionable utility.

Press reports put the budget to create Grace Farms at $120 million, which included land acquisition, infrastructure, landscaping, and $67 million for construction of the new multi-use building. The Grace Farms website lists the aggregate area of the various components of The River at 57,700 gross square feet, which yields a hefty cost per interior square foot of over $1,161. 2 I know from my own practice that minimalism is expensive, and that fact is certainly proven here. I am grateful to Sharon and Robert Prince, the couple who have been the driving force behind the project, and their fellow donors, for applying their wealth to land conservation (the initial motivation being to thwart a plan to develop the property for private residences) and high architectural patronage. Likewise, I will refrain from complaining that this huge amount of money could have been better used to build, say, a public school or affordable housing (better to tax wealthy New Canaanites to that end). And yes, Grace Farms is open to the public at no charge, and it’s a lovely place to spend an afternoon, if you have a car to get there. Likewise I am sure that the center’s ambitious programming, when it gets up to speed, will have great value and that the not-for-profit organizations to which the foundation offers the facility for retreats and other activities will benefit from the venue. Still, to build a “community center” such as this, in one of the wealthiest and most privileged communities in the United States, seems of questionable utility — an extravagant gesture, of which the SANAA building is the perfect embodiment.

I confess that I came to Grace Farms with eyes prejudiced by a trip, just a week earlier, to another rural venue with celebrated architecture. This would be Hale County, Alabama; a beautiful landscape of gently rolling farmland where catfish ponds have largely displaced cultivated fields. Here the towns are desolate, with boarded-up storefronts on Main Street and abandoned cotton warehouses and railroad depots beyond. Deteriorating mansions stand as reminders of the region’s heyday when cotton was king, while most of the populace live in falling-down farmhouses and mobile homes. The county was impoverished by the collapse of the cotton industry in the early 20th century and depopulated by the great migration of African Americans to the cities of the industrial north. Hale County has for decades been known as one of the poorest jurisdictions in the United States. It was famously the locus of James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a chronicle of Depression poverty illustrated by some of Evans’s most gripping portraits. Hale County is also where, in 1995, Samuel Mockbee established the Rural Studio, an experiment in design-build architectural education out of Auburn University.

The early years may have been radical and tentative, but Rural Studio is today well known and justly celebrated. Last year the program marked its twentieth anniversary with the publication of Rural Studio at Twenty, which featured a catalog of projects photographed by Timothy Hursley, who has documented the studio’s work for years. The basic premise of Rural Studio is that a group of students in the Bachelor of Architecture program at Auburn spend their fifth year in Hale County — 200 miles west of Auburn — where they live together and work collaboratively on the design of a building of demonstrable local benefit and then erect it with their own hands over the course of the academic year and following summer. Projects have included ultra-low-cost housing, agricultural and market buildings, park structures, and civic buildings.

Rural Studio, Boys & Girls Club, Greensboro. [Timothy Hursley]

Rural Studio, Lions Park Playscape, Greensboro. [Timothy Hursley]

I had been invited to lecture at Auburn and my host suggested that I travel to Alabama a day early, so that he could show me Rural Studio’s work in Hale County. We made the two-and-a-half hour drive from the campus town, and in a whirlwind tour I was fascinated to see a significant selection of projects, including some ingeniously designed structures in Perry Lakes State Park — a picnic pavilion, covered bridge, a vertiginous birding tower, and high-concept outhouses — built over a span of about eight years. In Greensboro, the county seat, we visited the Boys and Girls Club and Lions Park, where succeeding classes of Rural Studio have designed and built various structures, including a wonderful playground composed from thousands of recycled barrels first used for the transport of mint oil (a local industry). On the edge of town, students have erected a trio of prototypes for a current endeavor, the “20K House”; small dwellings designed with utter simplicity and the capabilities of the self-builder in mind.

Most impressive of all were the buildings in Newbern, the tiny town where Rural Studio is headquartered. The brawny but stylish metal shed of a fire station, designed by the class of 2004, was at the time the first new public building in Newbern in 110 years. Completed a little over a year ago, the Newbern Town Hall is a truly elegant composition. With a minimalist symmetrical plan, the building is made of squared-off wood timbers, laid up like modernist Lincoln Logs and tied together with threaded steel tension rods. Windows and doors are detailed to accommodate the predicted shrinkage of the wood. Connecting the town hall to the fire station is a trellised loggia and barbeque pavilion, reportedly popular for community gatherings. Across the road, an old one-story commercial building was sensitively converted into a library just last year.

Rural Studio, Newbern Fire Station. [Timothy Hursley]

Rural Studio, Newbern Town Hall. [Timothy Hursley]

Rural Studio, Newbern Library. [Timothy Hursley]

Come to think of it, Newbern’s little civic center serves a program similar to that of Grace Farms: community center, performance venue, meeting space for various groups, hang-out place for kids after school. One of Grace Farms’s stated missions is to foster social justice; to be “a gathering place and leveraging vehicle for those with a shared mission to help individuals and communities in the world who need it most.” This is certainly a laudable goal, though richly ironic that it should emanate from a former horse farm — rescued from development as down-market mansions on mere ten-acre plots — in a suburb with a notorious history of restrictive covenants and “gentlemen’s agreements” that kept the population predominantly white and Christian for decades, and with real estate prices that perpetuate extreme exclusivity to the present day. I sense a latent expiatory motivation behind the Grace Farms enterprise. To be sure, Hale County, Alabama, like much of the Deep South, has a history of racism and injustice far more heinous than that of New Canaan; but in Rural Studio’s mission and method of delivery of community assistance there is no ambiguity. The Newbern civic center and diverse other projects represent social justice made concrete, on the ground. Work with the community, find out what they need, then build it. “Straightforwardness, economy of means and restraint” may have been sidelined in favor of a more attention-grabbing agenda at Grace Farms, but these qualities indisputably characterize the work of Rural Studio.

The Newbern civic center and diverse other Rural Studio projects represent social justice made concrete, on the ground.

Rural Studio has, over the years, accrued a certain cult status — a quality that Grace Farms shares, as I discern from their literature and the scripted way in which the preternaturally gracious staff and volunteers speak about the place, which, after all, was founded by a church. People too young ever to have known Sam Mockbee speak reverentially of “Sambo,” who has become a mythic figure. Students and alumni convey a near-religious intensity when they speak of their immersive experience in Hale County — and many come back after graduation for an additional year or two, to see their construction projects through to completion. I have no doubt that the program can be life-changing for students, most of whom come from urban and suburban backgrounds. In conversation with faculty on the main Auburn campus, however, I picked up some resentment toward the Studio and the special status — and international attention — that it enjoys. (It reminded me of my time at Penn, when we who were in the regular M.Arch program had to endure the pretentious babble of students in Louis Kahn’s exclusive post-professional degree program, who spoke in cryptic Kahn-talk that we were not expected to understand.)

Samuel Mockbee’s death in 2001, at age 57, may have saved Rural Studio from turning into some sort of Taliesen South. As it is, the Studio, which since 2002 has been under the directorship of Andrew Freear, has clearly evolved. 3 Early projects produced under Mockbee’s tutelage display a hand-craft aesthetic and self-conscious rusticity that tends toward fetishizing the local vernacular. Recent production has engaged more industrial materials and construction methods, often with goods, services, and equipment finagled from local suppliers and contractors. And projects such as Newbern Town Hall, the Hale County Animal Shelter (2006), and Akron Boys and Girls Club (2007) share a minimalist modern aesthetic that is a strikingly novel presence in central Alabama. In addition to structures that house much-needed social services, Rural Studio delivers progressive design to the countryside. As it happens, the projects are surprisingly similar in aesthetic impact, if not genesis or program, to the series of interventions designed by Kazuyo Sejima for the impoverished island of Inujima, in Japan, which I recently saw her present in a lecture at Cooper Union (and are among the many projects exhibited in “A Japanese Constellation: Toyo Ito, SANAA and Beyond,” now at the Museum of Modern Art). Consisting of new, minimalist structures and surgical reconfigurations of vernacular buildings, these projects are intended for the display and production of art; the sponsor’s objective being to stimulate the village economy by making the island an art tourism destination. Sejima’s designs are themselves art pieces made exceptionally effective by their context and, yes, by their straightforward simplicity, economy of means, and restraint.

The architectural profession still seems to view ‘social’ architecture as a sub-category of practice, much the way that ‘ecological’ design was long siloed.

I attended the ceremony on Ellis Island, in May 2010, at which Sejima and Nishizawa were presented with their Pritzker Prize. I was seated with friends, a husband-and-wife architectural partnership whom I and many others consider worthy Pritzker material. When Lord Palumbo, then president of the Pritzker committee, spoke of SANAA’s development of their distinctive body of work over fifteen years of practice, my table-mates and I couldn’t help but mutter, sotto voce, “wow, fifteen years!” — all of us having been in practice far longer, and knowing that in architecture years fifteen is a flash; a mere warm-up to a mature practice. Awards may be given to recognize enduring achievement or, sometimes, to encourage the recipient to persevere along a promising path, though the latter doesn’t always pan out. Just six months before SANAA’s Pritzker, Barack Obama was given the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor many consider to have been premature at best. Toward the end of his thirty-five-year career, Samuel Mockbee reaped a measure of well-deserved recognition. In 2000 he won a MacArthur “genius” grant, and in 2014 the AIA awarded him its Gold Medal posthumously. I wonder if, had he lived longer and built more, Mockbee would have been considered a Pritzker candidate. Recent prizes to Shigeru Ban and Alejandro Aravena suggest that social responsibility has crept onto the Pritzker committee’s schedule of values, though the profession at large still seems to view “social” architecture as a special sub-category of practice, much the way that “ecological” design was long siloed (until it was relabeled “sustainable,” married with technology, and became fashionable). The modesty of Mockbee’s architecture and the unconventional, collaborative method of its production, tied into his pedagogy in a way that collectivizes authorship, would probably handicap him as a candidate in the politics of today’s architectural awards system.

It is no secret that high style architecture follows the money — it always has. Grace Farms and the work of Rural Studio may be perfect architectural representations of the extreme inequality in the distribution of wealth that afflicts the world today, but they meet on common ground to demonstrate that artistic, and ethical, values need not correlate with budget, and that the means to a simple end are rarely straightforward.

  1. The glass was manufactured in England, sent to Barcelona for forming, lamination, and assembly into insulating units (by the Spanish company Cicursa), and then shipped to the United States and trucked to the site; all under the management of the German contractor Roschmann Steel & Glass. Quite a carbon footprint for a disappearing facade “at one with nature.”
  2. This article has been corrected post-publication. An earlier version indicated, incorrectly, that the project budget was $210 million.
  3. Bruce Lindsey was co-director of Rural Studio from 2002 to 2006.
Belmont Freeman, “Rural Visions,” Places Journal, April 2016. Accessed 08 Jun 2023.

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