Reflections on Transparency

New Canaan

8 June 2016

As much as I like an opening party, it's usually best to visit a new work of architecture in the period shortly after it's opened, once the frenzy has died down and everyone is figuring out how to live with their new environment. Grace Farms is a case in point.

Constructed in New Caanan, Connecticut, Grace Farms is the first US building by Sanaa's Kazuya Sejima and Ryue Nishzawa since they won the Pritzker Prize in 2010 and a building that has prompted considerable debate. Months on from the grand unveiling in October 2015, there’s still nobody in the world’s architecture press who seems entirely clear as to what sort of building Grace Farms actually is, its own website offering little beyond the obfuscating “centre for nature, arts, community, justice and faith.” The opportunity to visit in December, a little time after the tumult of its opening and with the perspective afforded by distance, is welcome.

One thing is clear. Sanaa's building takes transparency and its social effects to an extreme. Situated on a meadowy hillside in the middle of a large, forested site, the building snakes in and out of view, although attention is always drawn in its direction. Maybe it’s the shiny roof, a thin, elegant, pancake of steel and wood. Think of how beads of oil in a bowl of water spread out and float with a minimal thickness, connected by surface tension to forming an amorphous, bulging, snake: so too with Sanaa's roof, under which sit a series of pavilion-like volumes, most of which are enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass that form as 203 custom-curved pieces arranged in roughly circular shapes. It’s classic Sanaa: lots of glass; details pared down to a minimalist minimum; absolutely nowhere to hide.

Yet despite the numerous magazine covers it has already adorned, Grace Farms is not a turning point for architecture. Phenomenologically speaking, it employs a vocabulary of simple, transparent, minimalist volumes set into the landscape – a design language that has long a staple of architecture in New Canaan, a haven of modern architecture since the postwar period and the home of Philip Johnson’s Glass House. Functionally, Grace Farms seems familiar too. Behind the confusion, it appears to be a community centre, although it is admittedly uncanny to encounter a community centre on a site and in a building like this. Some of the things housed in the pavilions are what you might expect – the library and the café – while others seem out of place in their surrounds of glass, sunshine, and grass: the 700-person auditorium, the sunken-floor basketball court, the tiny tea room. Wandering among the barely-enclosed interior spaces on the rural hillside, you begin to feel that you’re in an implausible bubble diagram turned into a building. Grace Farms stems from an architectural fantasy of sketching a shape with a single line, calling it an “auditorium,” and then, poof, seeing it materialise with the same casual simplicity.

If you’ve done your research, you would expect nothing less from SANAA: Grace Farms borrows elements from the practice’s Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art which blurs interior and exterior space; the fluid forms of its Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne; and the undulating pathways of the Serpentine Pavilion in London. What you might not expect, however, is the way in which the New Canaan building is actually being used by the community that inhabits it. What sets Grace Farms apart from its predecessors is how the modernist and minimalist tropes it employs – extreme transparency, architecture as spectacle – are linked up with a peculiar form of idealism. In some respects Grace Farms is closer to impulses in contemporary art and radical politics than it is to the mega-churches and trophy buildings to which it has been compared. Grace Farms is a utopian experiment that raises subtly updated versions of some of the perennial questions of modernism: Who is the subject of architecture? What does it hope to do to them? And what are the mechanisms by which it enacts these manipulations?

To make sense of Grace Farms, you need to understand a little of the history of the community it houses. New Canaan exists along a series of winding, rural-suburban roads that run perpendicular to the beautiful Merritt Parkway in Fairfield County. It’s a straight shot down to New York, the roads passing through picturesque hamlets and a patchwork of affluent estates. In the 1990s, the hillside that is now graced by Sanaa's building was a pastoral riding school – developed from its former existence as a small farm. But the land was privately owned and plans emerged in the 2000s to develop it into multiple estates. To prevent the view from spoliation, the community resolved to buy the land and turn it into a nature preserve, with a group of people affiliated with the local nondenominational Grace Community Church purchasing 48 acres of the land. Between 2007 and 2009 these private individuals raised $40m to buy the land, an astonishing figure for a private venture. These 48 acres were later donated to the Grace Farms Foundation, the foundation purchasing the remainder of the 80 acres on which GraceFarms is located. In 2010 the foundation selected Sanaa to design a building for the site that would serve, vaguely, as a public amenity. Thus began the long, meandering process of figuring out what exactly the building would be used for and how it would be placed on the site.

Lest this sounds fuzzily idyllic, it is worth emphasising that New Canaan is a product of a specific American dream: a downtown working life that is directly connected to the comforts of home in the suburbs (or, more ambitiously, a second or third home in the hinterlands). New Caanan is part of the wealthy Connecticut Gold Coast and one of the top-earning towns in the US, with a median annual income of $540,235 as of 2014. The community is predominantly made up of white (90 per cent) homeowners (75 per cent), and New Caanan is the only town in the state with a Republican majority. Commuting to New York is common and the Manhattan/New Canaan connection is a perfect embodiment of the downtown/suburbia dream. Chelsea Thatcher, the foundation’s head of marketing and communications, puts it well: "All it takes is an hour by train and six minutes by taxi to get out here."

But because the town is part of the metropolitan machine, it can take an effort to get in a properly pastoral mood at Grace Farms. Residents seem to have to remind themselves that it is "a place to relax”, sometimes apologising for walking or talking a bit too quickly. "Sejima was very excited about the long driveway," recalls Thatcher. "It allows you to leave behind whatever is on your mind." A blockbuster building would hardly have been necessary for Grace Farms to accomplish this. In fact, adding a new building to the newly-acquired site seems to have been almost an afterthought. Two existing buildings that were converted from stables already do a fine job of accommodating the centre’s various community programs: children's art activities, small-scale discussions, a drop-off food pantry, and the day-to-day functions of Grace Church. Offloading most of the site’s hustle and bustle to these two buildings does, however, have the effect of making the architectural main event more relaxed. The multiple paths leading to the pavilions create a choose your own adventure atmosphere.

Such indeterminacy seems to have been an essential part of the Grace Farms mission, as evidenced when I sit down with Sharon Prince, the president of the Grace Farms Foundation, in the tea pavilion ten weeks after the building's October grand opening. "The opening didn't take place all at once,” she says. “We really see the last two months as an extended launch." The foundation launched its Justice Initiative in November – a scheme to grant justice-based non-profits programme space at the centre – leading to an ongoing internal discussion about what a "justice initiative" means alongside the foundation's other stated initiatives in faith, the arts, nature and community. While trying to figure out its institutional agenda, Prince says that she and her colleagues were also trying to figure out what to even call their building.

Why not just call it a community centre? After all, from the point of view of an architect, the building's programme is pretty clear: it has an auditorium, a library, a basketball court, and a cafeteria. Classic community centre. Prince's response is a mixture of direct and diffuse: "We did call it a community centre! We also called it a cultural centre, and a faith and cultural centre... But we didn't want people to come here with preconceptions, so we settled on the five words on the website: nature, community, justice, faith, and the arts.” Such openness and questioning is demanded of Grace Farms visitors as well as its staff. Although I braced myself on the drive over for an onslaught of faith-heavy conversations – a community dinner was planned for the evening – the building and the foundation are, in fact, pleasantly non-denominational. References to faith and grace are so understated that you might put them out of mind entirely, were it not for the fact that the word is in the name of the building itself. 

But this raises an obvious question: if Grace Farms is not a faith centre or a church, what is it? Is Grace Farms Foundation an NGO? Or maybe a startup? Questions like these, when raised with the foundation, are typically met with a smile. ”We're still figuring it out ourselves." Its official status is vague: Grace Farms Foundation is a tax-exempt 501c3 non-profit organisation, a designation that is pretty open-ended, covering churches as well as charities and even sports ventures. It may be a luxury to be able to experiment with unusual architecture and a new institution, but the vast sums of money involved create a sense of expectation. The building is reported to have cost $67m, the land another $13m. Yet Prince emphasises that they are prepared to take their time: "In thinking about what Grace Farms should be, we are thinking about the next 200 or 300 years."

Sanaa's building encourages such experimentation. Because it attempts to disappear and its programme is so fractured, it's not always clear how the building is meant to be used. Activity requires a deliberate choice, which is not necessarily dictated by the space – in this glass volume I'll read a book; over here I'll look at the landscape; here I'll drink a coffee – and on a busy day it might house a piano recital, a reading, a dinner, a concert, and a conversation with a community group. Some visitors swoop in, take part in what they came for, then leave, but the large community of people who spend their working hours at Grace Farms are a different story. Across its four or five initiatives – arts, justice, hospitality, faith, sport – this is a lot of staff. When I ask the barista in the cafeteria how many, he guesses 50, and as I wander around there certainly seems to be no shortage of helping hands and thoughtful faces attending to the building and its activities. Judging by the dozens of people wearing Grace Farms vests, a lot of people are paid to be here.

Perhaps the most interesting way to frame Grace Farms is to think of it as an intentional community. New Haven, now home to Yale University and a relatively short drive from New Canaan, was one of the first utopian communities of colonial America: a 17th-century town established in abidance with the puritanism that was out of favour in the native England of its emigrant founders. Grace Community Church derives from the less grandiose tradition of informal Bible study, but there is still something about it that seems to spontaneously re-invent utopian ambitions, even if there is no direct connection between Grace Farms and the New Haven experiment. The act of architecturalising an informal community always set this process in motion to some extent, but the Grace Farms building demands more than typical commitment from its users. Other communities that have formed themselves around buildings spring to mind – Arcosanti, an arcological community hand-built by Paolo Soleri and his acolytes in the Arizona desert; Drop City, a series of cobbled-together geodesic domes housing a commune in Colorado in the mid-60s – although Grace Farms operates at a lower key than the social experiments of previous decades. Its community seems less interested in the heroic gesture of building from scratch than in the more mundane tasks of keeping a building in operation. Are they engaged in a form of maintenance art?

When I visit, at least a dozen people are tidying gravel, repairing flashing, cleaning bathrooms, and fixing doors. As I ponder some sandbags near an entrance, a passer-by offers an explanation. "Ah, you've noticed our doorstops. On windy days the doors can fly open and tweak these little things,” he says, pointing at the minimalist posts that Sanaa seems to have called doorstops. What follows is the most thoughtful conversation about doorstops, safety, and the rigours of minimal design I've had in a while.

The mindset that accompanies the daily struggle against entropy seems to trickle up through the Grace Farms hierarchy. "Working with Sanaa and living in their building has made us very aware of everything we do," says Thatcher. “We are trying to be as intentional and straightforward as they are." Sanaa's imposition of extreme deliberateness began in the design process, which Thatcher encapsulates in a story about the width of a staircase. Could it be narrowed by coordinating the handrails and columns more carefully? "They argued with us for months about two inches,” she says. “When we asked why we needed to get rid of them, Sanaa said it's because they weren't necessary."

Such hyper-vigilance about seemingly insignificant things must have been a difficult process for the personalities involved. Grace Farms Foundation is headed by former executives drawn from a community of overachievers and their approach was initially top-down. Rather than organising a competition, they hired a project director, Paratus Group, which helped the Foundation draft a 37-page document and brought in a range of high-profile firms in 2009 to submit proposals. In 2010, Sanaa was selected, and an intense, two-year design process followed. Sejima and Nishzawa’s first scheme was a well-defined shape, more like their Toledo Glass Pavilion or Rolex Learning Center, and two photographs by Thomas Demand (commissioned by the Foundation) document the piles of sketch models that the architects produced. Requirements were checked off, one by one. The requirement of "warmth" translated not only into wood ceilings and furniture (made from the trees that were felled during construction (another requirement)), but also into the warm-hued concrete used for the floors.

Because every part of the building was subjected to Occam's Razor, some normal things didn't make the cut. There are no trash cans in the bathrooms. The stage has no curtain and no backstage – it's just a stage. Peter Miller of Handel Architects, the project’s executive architect, says that never before had he gone into such detail when designing a building. “Between the foundation, their project director, Sanaa, and Handel, there was an ongoing discussion about what the project would be, from programming to design to execution," he says. “Even while the building was being built there was still a questioning about how the foundation would pursue its initiatives and what types of spaces it would need and how they would be used.” As a result, the architecture at Grace Farms rarely recedes into the background; previously unconscious habits demand to be rethought. This may seem like the worst form of modernism – architecture as a sociology experiment – and indeed the experiment at Grace Farms takes place at a considerable scale. According to Thatcher, it is not unusual for 100 people per day use what must be the nicest basketball court in the world, with its roof hovering above a sunken floor and its 360° view of grass, trees, and sky. "We want people to be able to use it like any other court," says Thatcher, but she can't help adding, with a laugh, "Will it make better teenagers?"

The intentions of Sanaa and the Foundation aside, this sort of question seems to be the essence of the utopian impulse. In his essay ‘Is Utopianism Dead?’, the philosopher Simon Critchley writes that "We are living through a long anti-1960s. The various anti-capitalist experiments in communal living and collective existence that defined that period seem to us either quaintly passé, laughably unrealistic or dangerously misguided." However, he continues, if there is a new tendency that marks our time, it is "a deeply felt Situationist nostalgia for ideas of collectivity, action, self-management, collaboration, and indeed the idea of the group as such.” Contemporary utopianism is modest and personal – based in maintenance and cultivation, and linked to collaborative art and experimental politics – but it is utopianism nonetheless. During the evening’s community dinner, I am reminded that cultivation is a large part of what happens in a building like this. A group of teenagers from a local high school stand half-comfortably in tuxedos, singing holiday music a capella. Being a parent means shaping children, a task that can be partially offloaded to a community – and also to architecture.

What better way to control others than to have them control themselves? One way of instilling self-control is to create a sense of being watched. This is accomplished, architecturally, by the transparency effect. In a famous essay of recent architecture theory, ‘Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal... Part II’, the architectural historian Colin Rowe explains that what is important about transparency is not the physical fact of light going through glass, but rather the psychological effect that accompanies the perception of overlapping and ambiguous spatial phenomenon. At Grace Farms, looking in and through pavilions tends to collapse several layers of space, which has the effect of confusing inside with outside, carpet with immaculate-looking grass, columns with tree trunks, and so on. By day, its glass enclosures seem to disappear, but people and their activities are held in place, framed between the concrete floor and the wooden ceiling. By night, reflections off the glass walls double-up the space, intensifying the sense of exposure as even the trees lit up outside seem to be watching. This transparency effect is remarkably important in the modern world. It is the one thing that creates a feeling of public-ness.

For her part, Sejima seems to prefer to remain agnostic to the larger implications of their architecture. When I ask her if the demands of an extremely transparent building might make its inhabitants change their activities and habits, she demurs: “Yes, people can see what goes on inside the building but we didn't see that as a problem. The strong sunlight penetrating due to the transparency of the building was more problematic, which we tried to solve by creating the overhang.” I take this as a pragmatic avoidance of some of modernism’s trickiest questions.

The transparency effect is especially important in the context of New Canaan, where living life in the public realm is difficult to accomplish. The centre of the town, like many exclusive suburban centres, might as well be a mall; it's possible to be visible while shopping and dining, but that's about it. Grace Farms houses a range of public activities that have been largely sidelined elsewhere – study, performance, sport, meditation, spending time outdoors – and only time will tell what comes of this. Thinking optimistically, Grace Farms might foster an expanded public realm in New Canaan. On the other hand, it may only be used for tightly-delimited leisure activities by a select group of people who already have plenty of options. When the architecture critic Alexandra Lange used an essay on Dezeen to call for people to "test the limits of this proffered public-ness" by actually going to Grace Farms and using it, she was onto something. Certainly, the foundation seems to back Lange’s call. In our conversation, Prince emphasises repeatedly that they "want many different communities in the same space”, but no amount of participation would create a real sense of publicness if openness weren't already so deeply a part of the architecture. It's important that the building is transparent: the public realm requires seeing others and being seen.

The extreme visual and organisational openness of Grace Farms can create problems, however. "One day we might have sweaty teenagers in one part and people from the Department of Homeland Security in another," says Thatcher. "There's nothing to stop them from running into each other." The building's five main volumes – auditorium, library, offices, tea room, and basketball court – are not things that normally go together and putting them under one roof results in a rare fantasy of programmatic hybridisation: meditatively drinking tea while playing basketball; watching a dance performance while rolling in the grass; discussing law enforcement with stage legislators while contemplating art. It's not quite "eating oysters with boxing gloves, naked, on the 9th floor," as Rem Koolhaas famously fantasised about the Downtown Athletic Club (“a machine for metropolitan bachelors”) in his book Delirious New York, but that's the idea.

In a testament to the power of architecture, Sanaa's building has even had an effect on the Homeland Security types. Krishna Patel, director of the Foundation's justice initiative, was initially skeptical. "How can you believe that a physical space can have an effect?” she says. “Wouldn't it be better to use the money for the actual cause?" Yet the architecture was tested a month after the grand opening when a group of people working on ending child trafficking in Connecticut were invited to a two-day workshop. “The idea was to bring in the right groups to cut across the boundaries and turf wars that constrain law enforcement," says Patel. “I was shocked at the results.”

Patel and her colleagues are used to working in courtrooms, opaque spaces with dark wood walls and gold ceilings (“They feel like important places, but it can be oppressive”), and says that when trying to bring together NGOs and multiple levels of government, "there is no neutral place to convene, so meetings end up taking place in hotel conference rooms. It may seem silly, but it's a major obstacle." In contrast to the usual spaces, the auditorium at Grace Farms is the epitome of openness. Its amoeba-shaped glass walls expand to accommodate a welcome desk, but other than that it's nothing but a gently-sloping floor filled with chairs and a half-meter stage at the bottom. A wood ceiling with 93ft-long wooden beams and cables floats overhead. The view continues over the stage and down the hillside to meadows and a forest beyond, with old fences and paths completing the picturesque landscape. Patel insists that the space itself had a restorative effect on the people at the workshop: "It created a new momentum.”

Beyond this workshop, transparency-thinking infuses the justice initiative at all levels. "We are completely transparent and open about what we're doing," says Patel, for whom one method of stopping child trafficking is to scrape information from the dark web and then use machine learning to find the people responsible."When it works, it works," says Patel. "We could spend a couple hours and find someone that evaded us for months." The basic idea, she says, is to expose what many consider a private realm (the internet) to scrutiny. Visibility might even be pushed beyond some people's comfort level: "At its extreme best, this is about creating predicative models of people's behaviour." Perhaps transparency can reach all the way into people's souls. In any case, the Foundation's justice initiative transposes the panoptic effect of architectural transparency into the virtual and psychological realms.

The same thinking is evident in Grace Farm's art program. In finding a way to help artists "work against the inertia of the art industry," Kenyon Adams, the foundation's art director, extolls the virtues of a retreat to nature. "The hope is that by taking the pilgrimage out here, an artist can recapture something they may have lost along the way," he says, arguing that Sanaa's minimalism works "almost as a scientific method" towards this end. "They've created an instrument to help you discover what you didn't know you needed." When I ask him how this happens, he points to a particularly beautiful curve in the roof outside, framed against the sky by another part of the roof above and the hillside below. "It's about putting people in the right place and in the right state of mind to notice these little things. You can't force surprise, but that's where you run into grace." The first step in the process towards transparency effect is creating a state of vulnerability, which happens quite literally on the auditorium's stage. "It’s very vulnerable and exposed up there – you can't bring all your tricks," Adams says.

As a compensation for this general overexposure, the people of Grace Farms are keenly attuned to opacity. A few of the building's volumes (the offices, bathrooms, and food preparation area) are surrounded by white walls. Other spaces are cleverly hidden underground. Several staircases that seem to be located randomly in the grass or at the edge of a pavilion lead to a warren of storage, kitchens, lockers, game rooms, and off-stage spaces in the basement. The mixture of transparency and opacity in the main building is Sanaa's doing, of course, but the rooms in the existing barn structures can be attributed to the foundation. They see these rooms as "opaque spaces" with their own qualities – "places for healing," as Thatcher puts it. On the night I visit, a discussion with refugees is taking place in one of these rooms. But even here, transparency of another type is at work. The idea is to de-mystify a hazy topic and the moderator of the talk notes that entering the US as a refugee is "the most scrutinised way to enter the country”; not, as some people seem to think, an easy road in for terrorists.

Yet with all the talk about transparency, one criticism seems inevitable: it's almost entirely unclear how Grace Farms sustains itself. Thatcher mentions that they sell bags of coffee beans in the café to "help keep the lights on”, but do they also rely on grants to support workshops? Do they plan to rent out space to local partners? How much of their day-to-day budget is met by donations? All of this is unclear, and because everything surrounding the project is so carefully framed in terms of calm optimism, nobody seems at liberty to talk about the uncomfortable subject of money. All research has remained inconclusive, and the foundation seems unwilling to provide a definite answer.

But then tensions of transparency run deep in New Canaan. The first wave of architects to settle in the area were students and colleagues of Walter Gropius at Harvard University, most famously Marcel Breuer and Philip Johnson. These architects were derided at the time as proponents of so-called "Harvard box" design: aesthetically simple, "cheap," and functionalist, but - surprise, surprise - actually rather expensive and as dysfunctional as anything else. The local stance towards privacy and publicity is equally fuzzy. In the longer term, the wealth of international style modernist architecture has made New Canaan a site of pilgrimage. Throughout his long life, Philip Johnson hosted a prodigious cast of characters at his Glass House (which he built shortly after graduating from Harvard in 1943) and like Grace Farms, the Glass House is a sort of vitrine: it seems to have been built to frame the photos of Johnson cavorting with, say, Andy Warhol and Robert A. M. Stern (the dean of Yale's school of architecture for nearly two decades).

On the drive over to the Glass House, however, my tour guide, Christa Carr, has a different take on this notion of display: "When someone posts the address [of one of the many local Harvard box houses] online, everyone gets angry." The only sign of the Johnson's house along the anonymous rural road is an old stone wall that is a little taller than the others. Johnson's formula (which is very different from Sanaa's) seems to be that extreme transparency requires extreme privacy, with the public gaze always mediated by the camera, or, nowadays, the tour guide.

The predominant sense is that the Glass House is an arrangement to be seen, not touched. Except – and here's the twist – familiarity and enjoyment are essential to the spirit of the place. "His house evolved over time," notes Carr. “Johnson added a new building about every ten years.” Down the hill, no one seems to be stopping some kids from climbing on Johnson’s Lincoln Kirstein Tower and the Glass House Foundation even hosts freestyle picnics to let visitors wander the grounds as they please. The Glass House, like Grace Farms, is becoming an odd sort of cultural centre. "We want to help people remember that they are living in the middle of this stuff," says Carr.

Do the Glass House and Grace Farms work through vision, order, and stasis or familiarity, play, and change? This is a question without an answer and something that has to be negotiated through experimentation. "Philip Johnson invented the idea of lifestyle,” says Carr. “He posed it as a question: do you want to live in a colonial style house with 2.5 kids, or is something else possible?" The difficulty of the glass house lifestyle is softened somewhat by the eclectic nature of the complex as a whole. Need a place to hide? Right next to the Glass House is the Brick House, which contains a plush bed and decorative arches inside an opaque rectangular volume. There is a library, a sculpture gallery, a painting gallery, and other small structures, each with its own style. One thing that sets Grace Farms apart from this Johnson complex is the sheer uniformity of its glass design. "It's like a UFO landed," Carr opines, adding that the totalitarianism of Sanaa's design reportedly made one critic feel claustrophobic. "After a few minutes, she had to get out.”

Small shifts in scale can completely change the outcome of a utopian experiment. Seen in isolation, Grace Farms is an example of total design, but compared to earlier utopian communities, it has very little power over those who visit or work there. In the past, it was possible to be stuck in utopia. Imagine moving to New Haven, Connecticut, when it was founded as one of America's first utopian communities in 1638. Or think about a more extreme case, the Oneida Community, a utopian experiment started in upstate New York in 1848 that infamously instituted a practice of communal marriage. It seems likely that there is a connection between the reality of being stuck in a single large building through the long winters and the sense (illusory or not) of being trapped in utopia. But once everyone has the freedom to come and go as they please, the fiction of utopia becomes hard to sustain. It is no coincidence that the end of the great wave of utopian experiments in the 19th century occurred with the rise of rail transportation.

Now, the problem with utopias is one of keeping people in or out. One of the major embarrassments of modern urban design happened with the city planner Robert Moses’s work on the Parkway leading into New Canaan – a series of low bridges across the major thoroughfare that effectively kept buses carrying the poor from entering the wealthy suburbs – but restrictive covenants on land use can work to the same effect. It’s not difficult to restrict access, but it's much more difficult to keep people from leaving: people can always hop in a car and go, or else glance down at their phone and be somewhere else, virtually.

This is why Grace Farms is so remarkable. Disconnecting, retreating, being anonymous, being invisible – this is where the utopian impulse seems to be directed these days. Although it is counterintuitive that all this would take place in a transparent building, it makes sense when you realise that it is only by refocusing attention on oneself and the minutia of one's actions that our connections to what surrounds us become apparent. It’s a new-ager idea, but once the rhetoric is pared back – as it is so insistently at Grace Farms – it's possible to see it as an architectural effect. The important thing, for those who choose to, is simply to live in a space and follow its dictates. And to do so with others. This is Sanaa's brilliance: to make a public spectacle out of a personal lifestyle choice. Grace Farms offers the platform to make a particular utopian sensibility communal.

The architectural historian Antoine Picon suggested in his ‘Learning from Utopia’ that utopia is idealism plus architecture, but when I pose this formula to Prince, the idea falls flat. She comes back with a statement about how the design of Grace Farms was "purpose driven" and "goal orientated." This is certainly the minimalist stance as well: do as little as possible to produce the desired effect, and stop there. "When you ask Sanaa for a bench," muses Thatcher, "you get a plank of wood with little steel legs." That's it. And it works both functionally and aesthetically, but maybe socially, culturally and politically also. Like grace, maybe socio-cultural experimentation sneaks up through other means. Utopia can't be approached directly. Rather, it's a byproduct of living with design.