MAY 10: MODERNISM IN CONNECTICUT

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This post is about a tour on Thursday, MAY 10th of three modernist architectural landmarks in nearby Fairfield County.  These will include the iconic GLASS HOUSE by Philip Johnson; the newly built and controversial, GRACE FARMS; and the lesser known but truly wondrous FISH CHURCH by midcentury modernist master Walter K. Harrison.   Each one of these is very important in its own right – seeing them together is extraordinary indeed!  If we’re lucky, this may be during the prime and very luscious dogwood season.  Lunch will be at Grace Farms.  The cost for the day, including round-trip bus transportation, lunch and admission fees/ contribution is $160.

WOO-WOO-WOO: TIME FOR AN EXCURSION!   Forget your preconceptions about nearby Connecticut being the province of all-things-Preppie with an uber-traditional and WASP-y aesthetic.  During the current resurgence of interest in all things Mid-Century Modern, it’s surprising to realize that it also includes some of the country’s most revered modernist architecture – and a lot of it!  During the Post-War period the area’s proximity to New York City, its natural beauty and – at least at the time! – lower relative cost, made it a great place for architects to experiment with new design.  The fact that there were enough well-heeled architectural aficionados in the area to commission such work was a boon as well.  There are many, many, many such structures in the area – however, for our tour we will focus on three.

The first is the iconic GLASS HOUSE, constructed by Philip Johnson in 1949 as a week-end retreat for himself.  He used it continually for almost the next 50 years.  Perhaps the best known modernist structure in America (and a National Historic Landmark), when it was built it was sited within 45 acres of gorgeous woodland.  Over the years, Johnson added to the property with a BRICK HOUSE (primarily for guests), an art gallery/ repository, a pavilion and, much later, a gate house called “Da Monsta” – and several more which he called his “follies.”   The GLASS HOUSE was also the subject of one of the most famous of modernist architecture  kerfuffles as Johnson’s mentor, Mies VanDer Rohe, felt that it was largely derived from his also well-known, also nationally landmarked, Farnsworth House.  As it happens, the Farnsworth House was conceived prior to the GLASS HOUSE, but not completed until afterwards.  A model of it was included in a 1947 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York curated by – you guessed it – Philip Johnson.   Hmmmmm….

Jumping to the here and now, the very recently conceived and built GRACE FARMS, also in New Canaan, opened in 2015 calling itself a “new kind of community center.”  Spiritual, but with an a-religious bent, Grace Farms is a private organization dedicated to “advancing faith, nature, arts, community and justice initiatives.”  On an extraordinary 80-acre piece of property, at the center of it all is RIVER, designed by the Japanese Pritzker Prize-winning architecture firm SANAA.  It is a monolithic, meandering, serpentine-like building which houses an amphitheater/sanctuary; a library; a commons space offering snacks; tea pavilion; and a sunken court for recreation and performance. There are also two restored barns from the property’s original use as an equestrian center which are used for a visitor center, classrooms, and offices. The majority of the property is open for nature walks.  No surprise, GRACE FARMS has already won a slew of architecture awards but it has also engendered the ire of some of its neighbors who feel the scale and use of the facility has overstepped its original planning and zoning application which was done in the name of Grace Farms Community Church.  Too complicated and too boring to go into here, suffice it to say that there are many entanglements and perhaps limitations to come – uh, so let’s go see it now!

Less well-known but equally significant is the FISH CHURCH, designed by modernist master Wallace K. Harrison (architect of the Time-Life Building, Rockefeller Center, Lincoln Center’s Met and the United Nations) and built in 1958. The Fish Church is the place of worship for the First Presbyterian Church of Stamford, Ct.  Its nickname derives from its silhouette and its floorplan both of which look like a fish which is a common, early Christian, symbol. (Better look that up!)  Its crucifix incorporates wood from Canterbury Cathedral in England.  After visiting medieval churches and cathedrals in Europe, Harrison focused on the two elements he felt were most important in the design: a soaring space and saturated, light-filled, color.  What he came up with was a design which was one of the first to use pre-cast concrete while incorporating over 20,000 pieces of faceted jewel-like glass (cut, using traditional methods, in Chartres, France).  After visiting the Church in daylight, many have said it’s “like being inside a giant sapphire.”   Upon visiting the FISH CHURCH, you will see that it defies easy categorization – and although built in the mid-century its look is its own.

These three famous works are only the tip of the iceberg for viewing modernist architecture in Connecticut.  New Canaan has long been recognized for its many examples of modern architecture with over 100 prime examples of mid-Century design.  It has been called the home of “the Harvard Five” – Marcel Breuer, John Johanson, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and Eliot Noyes – all of whom designed homes for themselves and others in the town.  They were all heavily influenced by Walter Gropius, a founder of the Bauhaus and ultimately head of the Harvard architecture program.  Most of these are still private homes and not available for viewing although the New Canaan Historical Society sometimes arranges a tour in the Fall of a selection of them as a fundraiser.

This has all the makings of a grand MWC day out!  Truly great architecture; mesmerizing Spring foliage and dogwoods and a convivial road trip with MWC’ers.  Can’t think of hardly anything better – this will be something special!  Please join us!

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