A Tour Along SANAA’s River Retreat

The continuous anodized aluminum roof shelters the open areas, as well as the glass volumes that punctuate the winding structure.
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One of five indoor spaces, the communal dining hall features the River’s characteristic wood ceilings and 360-degree views.
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A gymnasium and multi-use space is sunk into the landscape, turning glazed walls at grade into clerestory windows.
The continuous anodized aluminum roof shelters the open areas, as well as the glass volumes that punctuate the winding structure.
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Meandering along with the contours of its site, the Japanese firm’s community centre in Connecticut is as beautiful as its surroundings.

The architects’ brief for The River Retreat was succinct yet clear, according to Grace Farms Foundation president Sharon Prince: “We wanted the building to disappear into nature.” Nevertheless, there’s no missing it. The designers, SANAA of Tokyo, have a reputation for ethereal forms with expansive glass walls and slimmed-down structural elements.

Even with those quiet moves, the River is now the star attraction of the 32‑hectare wooded site in New Canaan, Connecticut. Slithering 427 metres down a grassy knoll, with a shimmering anodized aluminum roof, it exerts an irresistible pull.

Even up close, the building does an exquisite job of enhancing the personal experience of nature. Linked by an exterior path and sheltered beneath a single roof, five circular glass volumes – a sanctuary, a library, a communal dining area, a welcome area and a gymnasium – make for a procession nearly half a kilometre long, which showcases views of ponds, fields and trees.

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“It was very difficult to find a solution to communicate with this beautiful landscape,” says SANAA co-founder Kazuyo Sejima, noting that he and partner Ryue Nishizawa wanted to play up some key features. To tie all of the desired elements together while following the topography, which drops 13 metres over the length of the building, the architects first experimented with the layout by walking the site with a rope.

Rather than disappearing, the River dazzles – a building that matches the beauty of its site. Free and open to the public, the centre’s multi-­functional space and community centre will also host site-specific art installations by the likes of Olafur Eliasson, Susan Philipsz and Teresita Fernández. While the foundation’s church and arts programming are still settling into their new home, one thing is clear: this town, already rich in architectural icons such as Philip Johnson’s Glass House, now has another.  

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