Modern Sukkah Design Competitions Reimagine Ancient Shelters

Curly willow, myrtle, and palm fronds in the “Tension Release” sukkah, Sukkot at the Ranch 2014 / Yoshi Silverstein

“On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the harvest of your land, you shall observe a festival . . . you shall take the product of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook . . . You shall live in booths for seven days.” Leviticus 23:39-43

Ancient verses from the Jewish Bible and contemporary landscape design do not often overlap, but this year no fewer than five design competitions and exhibitions throughout the U.S. and Canada have asked designers to create modern interpretations of the “booths” referred to in Leviticus. Called a sukkah in Hebrew, the temporary dwellings have been built annually by Jews for the last two millennia to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot (plural for sukkah), a week-long Autumn harvest festival. The holiday is a unique, three-dimensional religious experience, where participants are asked to not only re-tell the stories of their Jewish ancestors, but actually re-live their experiences and make them meaningful for today.

The idea of a design competition for the sukkah, however, dates back just a few years to 2010, when the popular Sukkah City event built twelve radical new interpretations of the sukkah at Union Square in New York City.

“The sukkah is one of the very few times where the Jewish liturgy and tradition actually has an architectural expression. So it’s amazing nobody thought of this before,” says architectural critic and Sukkah City juror Paul Goldberger in the documentary film chronicling the process.

Interpreting what is meant by “booth” creates a natural design challenge. The Talmud, a compendium of Jewish law, lays out the parameters that make a sukkah “kosher” – up to code, so speak. The basic constraints are simple: it must be temporary, with at least two and a half walls, big enough to contain a table, and have a roof made from organic materials that provide more shade than sun, but allow one to see the stars. “Yet a deep dialogue of historical texts intricately refines and interprets these constraints,“ says Sukkah City. “The paradoxical effect of these constraints is to produce a building that is at once new and old, timely and timeless, mobile and stable, open and enclosed, homey and uncanny, comfortable and critical.”

Sukkah City People's Choice Winner "Fractured Bubble" / Wikimedia Commons
Sukkah City People’s Choice Winner “Fractured Bubble” / Wikimedia Commons

Many who grew up celebrating the holiday of Sukkot think of the sukkah as some version of a box framed by 2 x 4 wooden planks or PVC piping, walls built from plywood or stretched canvas, and a roof made from whatever branches or other plant materials could be sourced locally. Many Jewish homes and communities enjoy the opportunity to gather friends together to build and decorate the sukkah, often with the kind of fall-themed decorations found at the local craft shop: dried gourds, hanging paper ribbons and pendants, string-lights. The holiday has long engendered a warm, community-based ethic – and for those who sleep in the structure, it’s like backyard camping as a kid.

For designers, however, the possibilities of new forms, materials, and construction methods within the set design constraints are a fascinating opportunity to translate religious ideas and values into physical form. For event organizers, the opportunity is to directly connect important social justice issues like homelessness to Jewish tradition and engage community members in new ways.

In Toronto, Sukkahville was started in 2011 by non-profit housing agency Kehilla Residential Programme to highlight its affordable housing initiatives. “Sukkahville helps create a conversation about affordable housing, raises public awareness through an interactive Sukkah exhibition and most importantly, it generates funds for its Rental Assistance Program that helps those who need a home,” says the design brief on the website.

Visitors climb inside a sukkah at Sukkahville 2013 / Sukkahville
Visitors climb inside a sukkah at Sukkahville 2013 / Sukkahville

While the basic constraints are tantalizing on their own, some organizers dug deeper to further frame design guidelines with Judaic connections. As this year is considered a year of shmita (sabbatical), the 2014 Sukkot at the Ranch competition is themed “Release, Renew, Reimagine.” Based on the traditional shmita year during which the Israelites were instructed to fallow their agricultural lands and release debts, the design brief asks: “How can a temporary structure explore these juxtapositions of harvest and release?” Here are the three finalists. (Full disclosure: the author is a finalist in this competition as well).

“Three Petals” sukkah pays homage to nomadicism with its teepee inspired form / Sukkot at the Ranch
“Untitled #8” sukkah has seven sides, one of which is open / Sukkot at the Ranch
Central bamboo spire inside the "Tension Release" sukkah at Sukkot at the Ranch / Yoshi Silverstein
Central bamboo spire inside the “Tension Release” sukkah, Sukkot at the Ranch / Yoshi Silverstein

Other events, such as SukkahPDX at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in Portland, and Sukkah City STL 2014: Between Absence and Presence in St. Louis, partner Jewish community organizations with museums and design schools. “What sets apart Sukkah City STL is that the competition focuses on emerging architecture and design students,” says Jacqueline Ulin Levey, St. Louis Hillel president, in a St. Louis Post Dispatch article.

Visitors take a selfie in the “Disintegrating Boundaries” sukkah at Sukkah City STL / Joe Angeles, WUSTL Photos
“Fleeting Moments” sukkah at SukkahPDX / Janet Eastman

These kinds of design competitions provide the opportunity to invite distinguished professionals to the jury. Kenneth Helphand, FASLA, a well-known landscape architecture professor at the University of Oregon, was a member of the jury for SukkahPDX. The Sukkot at the Ranch competition sponsored by the Leichtag Foundation in Encinitas, CA, features landscape architect Mia Lehrer, FASLA, as a judge this year.

The competitions and exhibitions gave finalists materials budgets ranging from $1,000 – $3,600, and most require the structures be built in a day. Many exhibitions are still open to the public for the remaining days of Sukkot.

Yoshi Silverstein, Associate ASLA, is founder and lead designer-educator at Mitsui Design, which strengthens Jewish connections to place. He was the ASLA summer 2014 communications intern.

One thought on “Modern Sukkah Design Competitions Reimagine Ancient Shelters

  1. Bia Castro 10/16/2014 / 8:33 am

    The opening statement is so beautiful, especially this part “you shall take the product of beautiful trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook . . .”
    Poetic!! 🙂 Great design by the way!

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