Loopy inSANAA “River”

The River, a pavilion by SANAA in New Canaan, Conn. (worldarchitecturenews.com)

The River, a pavilion by SANAA in New Canaan, Conn. (worldarchitecturenews.com)

My life as a reporter of architectural design review proceedings has over-taxed my ocular muscularity. My eyeballs roll furiously whenever an architect declares that his building’s “remarkable transparency” allows it to give “new meaning to the concept of ‘blending in.'”

The quotes come from an article in World Architecture News, “A River Runs Through It,” about the River, a pavilion of glass by the Tokyo architecture firm SANAA that winds through a meadow of New Caanan, Conn., farmland. Its location on private property does not absolve my eyes of rolling but surely absolved the landowner of design review. He or she is no doubt a wealthy “gentleman farmer” who wants to cash in on the proximity of his or her “farm” to Philip Johnson’s Glass House, also in New Canaan.

And why did the gentleman farmer hire SANAA to design it? Perhaps the allure of the double-A played a role, consciously or coincidentally.

SANAA's project in Paris. (openbuildings.com)

SANAA’s project in Paris. (openbuildings.com)

SANAA has committed the far greater crime of beginning to erect another snaky glass abomination in a much more important place. It has a designed an ugly new facade for La Samaritaine, the famous department store along the Rue de Rivoli in Paris, recently approved for construction after a bout of courtroom jockeying. All Paris shares blame for this eyesore-to-be. In the case of the River, the blame belongs not to SANAA, which is merely a hired thug, but to Grace Farms, whose “president” is Sharon Prince – so, no, not a “wealthy gentleman farmer,” not quite, but someone who spent $67 million to sheath 83,000 square feet of exhibition space, a library, a welcome center and a gym in a glass tube stretching a quarter of a mile on 80 acres of rolling meadow and hillside.

But let’s not chuckle from the peanut gallery. The River is a “unique place where people could go to convene with nature, encounter the arts, pursue justice, foster community and explore faith.” Well, gosh. That sure is a unique building! Are they sure it’s not the White House? The River has been touted as “brilliant,” and surely it must be, since its design comes to us from a winner of the Pritzker Prize.

Nevertheless, it is “barely there,” “completely dissolves into the landscape,” and “creates architecture’s ultimate disappearing act,” and yet has “enormous presence.” So says reporter Sharon McHugh of worldarchitecturenews.com, who understands that if you are praising the work of a certifiable starchitect, your words will not be challenged and thus need not make sense.

GTECH. (dish.andrewsullivan.com)

GTECH. (dish.andrewsullivan.com)

The fact is that you cannot spend $67 million and end up with a building that fails to make its mark upon the landscape. Like many buildings whose plans I’ve watched architects trot out at design review – not least GTECH headquarters, in Providence, whose glassy exterior was billed as reflecting and hence disappearing into its context! – the River leaves a clear slither upon the landscape it snakes through.

I leave for another day why architects so frequently seek to persuade the public that their work will be invisible!

Like Johnson’s Glass House, a building set in private verdure in a small town like New Canaan may be appreciated for doing far less damage than a building in downtown New Canaan, or for that matter a building on the Rue de Rivoli. So perhaps we should applaud Sharon Prince for diverting SANAA’s attention from more damaging opportunities.

A tip o’ the ol’ fedora to Anne (“The Fair”) Fairfax for flinging me the fairly farfetched fandango from Fairfield County.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to Loopy inSANAA “River”

  1. For $67 million? Nah, having praised it for being out of the way, I have to say it’s loopy. But it’s their money and their land. Could be a lot worse. Find me some money to go to far-flung places and write about them and maybe I’ll concede that I should visit before I criticize. But in general, I hate war without having to visit one!


  2. kristen says:

    I’m with Judith on this one…


  3. Judith Dupre says:

    David, have you actually been to Grace Farms? It is lovely, perfectly situated within the landscape and featuring wide, open, welcoming spaces, all provided for public enjoyment at no cost. As are lectures, seminars, a lending library, a basketball court, and walking trails.


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