Saturday, October 10, 2015

Faith & Form

This afternoon we enjoyed Community Day at Grace Farms in New Canaan, Connecticut. Grace Farms is an 80-acre former horse farm operated by the Grace Farms Foundation, which describes it as a place where people can "experience nature, encounter the arts, pursue justice, foster community, and explore faith." The event was one of several this weekend to mark the inauguration of a new facility.

The architecture of the new complex is quite stunning. Designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architectural firm SANAA, the main building, known as The River, meanders down the hill in the form of a large, sinuous canopy that "pools" in several areas to enclose programmatic spaces: sanctuary, library, commons, pavilion, court. Its the kind of sinuous modernism I particularly enjoy. My wife described it as "opulent in its minimalism." I quite agree.

Several times during the day, I heard the new facility described as a "gift" to the greater community, and indeed programming for the newly-opened complex already includes use of the sanctuary as the new permanent home of Grace Community Church's Sunday worship services. I had read that the vision for Grace Farms was inspired by the Christian faith, and that it had the intent of house the Grace Community Church, but this last connection was what was curious to me.

I am a Christian and my faith is central to my life. I also value the arts. Since both of these are initiatives of Grace Farms, no problem, right?

In this particular place, though, I was finding it difficult to square faith and art (and more to the point, architecture) in my mind. I was struck by the cognitive dissonance going on in my head as we explored the grounds.

On the one hand, the building is pretty stunning as a work of architecture. Less a building than a pavilion, or even a folly, the architect in me loves the idea of this type of minimalist artistic locus, on the rolling hills, overlooking nature. It's a bit of a romantic notion, I'll admit.

But this is no run-of-the-mill work of architecture. It's a no holds barred, no expenses spared work. I mean, there's hardly a flat piece of glass in the whole place! It takes a lot of expertise and precision, and therefore money, to create something so effortless. Less may be more aesthetically, but it's often more work.

To put it plainly, then, given the extravagance of the building, I couldn't help myself thinking, couldn't the millions and millions of dollars I'm sure it cost be better used elsewhere supporting churches or other faith-based programs? Why spend so much on a facility?

If the complex had been built by a secular arts organization, no problem. But this? Cognitive dissonance.

Here's why I hated that thought in my head, though. Was I suddenly thinking that art and architecture were not a worthy Christian pursuit? The connection between faith and the arts have throughout history produced some amazing things: Cathedrals, Renaissance paintings, Handel's Messiah.

We meandered up the River and found ourselves in the Sanctuary at the top of the hill at the end of the afternoon just in time for a performance.

The first act was a teen pianist who played a Chopin Polonaise. But this wasn't any ordinary teen. The severely autistic teen was a participant in a program called Arts for Healing, where he flourished as a pianist. And that program--the one where this young man had discovered a true gift and a way to communicate and connect with the world when words failed--we were told was going to start being held in one of the brand new facilities at Grace Farms. Warming.

Then out walked the gospel choir. Their performance was amazing, and I found myself particularly enthralled by the woman signing in the choir. Yes, I did mean to say "signing," not "singing." As in, sign language. (As an aside, I've always loved signing choirs. My home church as a teen used to frequently have a signing choir visit, and I was always amazed.) Warming.

Then out came the modern dance troupe. Together with a vocal soloist and gospel choir backup, the dancers interpreted the story from Matthew 28 when Mary Magdalene came to Jesus' tomb only to find it empty and was told by an angel that he had risen from the dead.

That's it. Bingo.

During this performance it hit me. This is why this facility is here; this is what the Foundation is after. This is faith. This is art. In this place full of architects (who like me were probably more interested in the building than the Foundation and its goals) and curious community members the name of Jesus was used unabashedly. Art and faith. Faith and art.

When the choir started their last piece, the young autistic man who had played the piano stood up in his seat and started dancing, unashamed and with what I imagine to be "faith like a child." But he broke the ice. The audience stood, clapping along. It was pretty amazing.

I'm still not feeling entirely squared on this, but I suppose I'm less worried about how much the building cost at the moment. Instead, I hope and pray the facility will be used to provide the opportunities the Foundation seeks: for community engagement with the arts, bound by faith, among nature, seeking justice.

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