Mein Garten, a landscape architecture and horticultural design firm based in Hanoi, Vietnam, decided to create a new headquarters to showcase its work. With local architects at Studio 102, they created a green haven that merges architecture and nature, creating a free-flow between indoor and outdoor environments. Mein Garten wanted to create an office as open to nature as possible, not only to boost employee health but also their creativity. The offices rely on natural ventilation and lighting most of the time.
According to ArchDaily, Mein Garten found a vacant house in the Cau Giay district. Instead of turning it into the usual “closed, air-conditioned standard office,” they thought it had the potential to become a new kind of work space. Using simple wood structures, paint, and plants also kept the “cost of the renovation very low.”
The architects took out some walls, creating open spaces that bring fresh air and light into the work spaces. These open spaces were then filled with plants. Mein Garten writes: “There is no boundary between the inside and the outside. Plants are everywhere: in the garden, in the semi-open space, on the ground floor, first floor, on the roof, the walls.” The effect is reminiscent of Indian modern architect B.V. Doshi’s “vernacular architecture,” as seen at his Indian Institute of Management Bangalore campus.
As visitors enter the building, they are invited to step over a concrete pathway that appears to float in the water. A series of rafters covers the walkway, providing shade. At the facing wall, there is a basic green wall structure that provides a home for potted plants.
Moving into the lobby, there’s an inviting courtyard with seating and views of the showroom.
Within the offices, employees look out on another interior patio. There’s a spot to sit with a colleague and take in the lush plant life. As Mein Garten explains, “this office bring people closer to nature, closer to each other, and makes them work more effectively.”
In the back, at the employee entrance, plants are allowed to climb up the rafters, so employees on the upper floors looking out their windows also get a green view.
Mein Garten’s approach is smart and sustainable in a tropical climate like Vietnam’s. While it’s often hot and humid, there are cooler, wet seasons, too. And these seasonal changes are reflected in the office. “Day by day, season by season, the plants continue to grow and change, giving the office a new look. This office, therefore, is not just a built object. It is living, like an organism.”
While some aspire for grand pools or tranquil gardens in their backyards, New Zealand resident, Barry Cox, had other ideas for a 3-acre space in his own yard. Yearning for an old stone church like those he had admired on his travels through Europe, Cox united his passions for religion and tree relocation to create a 100-seat chapel at his Ohaupo, New Zealand home made almost entirely from mature trees. According to the New Zealand Gardener, as a child, Cox wanted to be the Pope, but instead, settled for the position of head altar boy in his hometown church. His interest in Christianity, coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of trees, came full circle in the creation of Tree Church.
Cox, who owns the mature tree rescue and relocation business, Treelocations, spent only four years “growing” the church. By re-homing semi-mature trees, he accelerated the maturity of the structure, giving it the appearance of a project 20 years in the making.
Cox carefully selected from a wide variety of trees for the chapel. He writes on his website that he used live cut-leaf alder trees for the roof canopy and copper sheen for the walls, as well as camellia black tie, Norway maple, and pyramidal white cedar. These species were specifically chosen for their flexibility and their ability to be trained around the iron frame of the chapel. Some of these trees have stone-colored trunks, while others have sparse foliage, ensuring that the church can always be illuminated by sunlight.
Inside the church, rows of wooden benches form a pathway to an altar that holds special significance for Cox. The altar come from his family’s church in Shannon, New Zealand and is made of marble from Lake Como, Italy, where his ancestors are from. The copper-sheen walls of the church’s interior have thick, stone-colored foliage that must be trimmed every six weeks to maintain their lush quality.
Across from the church, Cox designed a labyrinth walk based on the walls of the ancient city of Jericho, created in 460 BC. He also constructed a large canopy from military cargo parachute to be used for after-event gatherings. Preparing for these events at the church is demanding for Cox, who told New Zealand Gardener it generally takes “five hours to mow the lawns and at least three hours of final primping to get the gardens and Tree Church to the standard to be happy for an event.”
While Tree Church was originally “designed to show how an instant garden can be created” using a tree spade, since its opening to the public in January 2015, the church is now not only “a welcomed retreat from society” for Cox, but for others as well. After urging from his friends and relatives, he decided to open the church to the public twice a week and it’s now a popular spot for photo shoots, events, and, of course, weddings. While it’s currently closed for the winter, it will open again October 2015.
The Emerging Voices Award was created in 1982 by the Architectural League of New York to showcase the work of early- to mid-career American architects, landscape architects, and urban designers. Each year, through an invited competition, a jury selects practitioners or firms with a “significant body of realized work that represents the best of its kind and has the potential to impact the future of architecture and landscape design.” 30 Years of Emerging Voices: Idea, Form, Resonance, a new book by the Architectural League of New York, documents and assesses the first three decades of the League’s Emerging Voices program, highlighting firms that have been recognized for their innovation, insight, and influence.
Organized chronologically by year of submission and interspersed with essays by leading design critics, this book is a true reference, valuable as a comprehensive snapshot of the past three decades of design. The Emerging Voices award is unique in that it recognizes professionals who are no longer students, but are not yet “fully mature practioners.” As Ashley Shafer, an associate professor of architecture at the Ohio State University, states in the book’s first essay, this career phase often gives way to work that is “idealistic, experimental, and formally clumsy on occasion.” While some of the work in the book may have been “dismissed as hypothetical, utopian, or even naïve,” it’s work we now look at with appreciation.
Take for example Steve Holl’s Bridge of Houses proposal for the then-abandoned High Line in Chelsea, Manhatttan, which was recognized among several of Holl’s other projects with the 1982 Emerging Voices Award. The firm’s proposal for the disused High Line was to construct many different houses over the rail. Each villa is, in itself, a slightly different looking bridge that provides pedestrian passage. While the ambitious project was merely conceptual, it served as a precedent for James Corner Field Operations’ High Line park, which was recognized with the award in 2001 and is also featured in the book. While seemingly unrelated projects, “a host of newly created buildings” engage the High Line as was intended by Holl almost two decades earlier.
The same phenomena is true of Reiser + Umemoto’s 1995 design for Yokohama’s International Port Terminal, which was recognized by the Architectural League of New York in 1996. The complex network structure for the building seemed fantastical and impossible to construct at the time of its conception. However, Jesse Reiser and Nanako Umemoto’s Taipei Pop Music Center, which is arguably just as structurally complex as their design for the International Port Terminal, is currently under construction. While many of their ideas were considered outside the realm of possibility in the mid-late 90’s, Reiser + Umemoto’s designs became not only feasible, but well-received, at the turn of the 21st century.
While the majority of the book is devoted to architects, several landscape architects are also featured, including Susannah Drake, FASLA, Dlandstudio; Chris Reed, FASLA, Stoss Landscape Urbanism; Elana Brescia, ASLA, and Kate Orff, ASLA, SCAPE; Gary Hilderbrand, FASLA, and Douglas Reed, FASLA, Reed Hilderbrand; Ken Smith, FASLA, Workshop: Ken Smith Landscape Architect; and Julie Bargmann, ASLA, D.I.R.T. Studio.
Bargmann was one of the first, if not the first, landscape architect to be recognized with the award when she won in 2000. While she has since gone on to design many recognizable projects, such as MASS MoCa in North Adams, Massachusetts, and the Urban Outfitters Headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 2000, she was best known for her work at the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. This regenerative project transformed an industrial icon into a model of twenty-first century sustainability through the use of ambitious ecological systems, creating “a new model of environmentally integrated manufacturing.” Bargmann is a true example of the kind of practitioner the award seeks to recognize — someone who has been a novel thinker from the beginning of her career and has made this innovation a career-long pursuit.
The most recent landscape architect featured in the book is Susannah Drake, Dlandstudio, who was recognized with the award in 2013. Applauded for her unique voice in projects like BQ Green and Gowanus Canal Sponge Park, both in Brooklyn, New York, Drake has quickly proven that interdisciplinary design is the way of the future. Each of Dlandstudio’s projects emphasizes the integration of ecology, infrastructure, and design at the urban network scale — using the United States’ largest city as a primary testing ground for new ideas in a way few firms have dared to try.
Focused on firms and individuals who have tested limits and pressed the design profession forward, rather than those who are solely focused on making names for themselves, 30 Years of Emerging Voices is a unique book in its genre, prioritizing innovation over recognition and setting the stage for design breakthroughs to come.
Since 1987, the biennial award has recognized “urban places distinguished by quality design and contributions to the social, economic, and communal vitality of our nation’s cities.” The 2013 gold medal was awarded to Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Chicago.
This year’s winning project, Miller’s Court, is a “renovation of a vacant historic tin can manufacturing building, into an affordable and supportive living and working environment for school teachers and education-focused non-profits.” Located in an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, the project, which was conceived and developed by Seawall Development Company with Mark, Thomas Architects, was completed in 2009.
The LEED Gold-certified complex includes “40 rental apartments and 30,000 square feet of office space and shared meeting rooms with contemporary, loft-like interiors.” Other features include a teacher resource center and a cooperatively owned independent café, which has become a popular meeting place for teachers, tenants and even President Obama, who visited in January.
One of the project’s crowning achievements is generating additional investment in the surrounding community. At the urging of several building residents, Seawall purchased and renovated 30 vacant neighboring houses to create Miller’s Square. Baltimore public school teachers and police officers are eligible for $25,000 grants toward homes there. Read more about the project in Metropolis.
Four other projects were recognized with silver medals and $10,000 each:
Located in the center of downtown Greenville, South Carolina, Falls Park on the Reedy is an urban oasis thanks to the transformation of a forgotten 40-foot tall waterfall and overgrown river valley into a 26-acre park. Development of the park, which opened in 2006, included replacing a four-lane vehicular bridge built directly over the falls with a pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Rosales+Partners. The bridge appears to float above the river, offering a dramatic overlook of the falls. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.
Grand Rapids Downtown Market is a new public space in one of West Michigan’s most challenged neighborhoods. The market “promotes local food producers, entrepreneurship, and education about nutrition and healthy lifestyles” by linking urban communities with the 13,000 farms in 11 surrounding counties and attracting a diversity of customers to the southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids. The state-of-the-art facility, designed by Hugh A. Boyd Architects, is the first LEED Gold–certified public market in the country. Learn more about the market at Metropolis.
Quixote Village, in Olympia, Washington, is a two-acre community of tiny houses that provides “permanent, supportive housing for homeless adults, including people suffering from mental illness and physical disabilities and recovering from addiction.” Since its completion in December 2013, Quixote Village has attracted the attention of many interested in tiny houses including nonprofits and private developers, as well as The New York Times.Learn more about the project at Metropolis.
Located three miles south of downtown Cleveland, Uptown District is the “redevelopment of a corridor that links surrounding neighborhoods with art, educational, and healthcare institutions, producing outdoor gathering spaces, retail shops and restaurants, student and market-rate housing, and public transit connections in the process.” The development has transformed two previously underused city blocks between two of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions into a “community gateway.” Learn more about the project at Metropolis.
The 2015 RBA selection committee included: Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock, Arkansas; Rebecca L. Flora, Sustainable Practices Leader, Ecology & Environment, Inc.; Larry Kearns, Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects; India Pierce Lee, Program Director, Cleveland Foundation; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Mia Lehrer + Associates; James Stockard, Lecturer in Housing, Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Learn more: A blog series on Metropolis’web siteis chronicling the 2015 RBA process and case studies of the winning projects.
While LEED is nearly a household name, not everyone has heard of WELL, the first building standard for human health and wellness. Used for an office, LEED looks at environmental sustainability, but WELL is focused exclusively on the health of employees, whose salaries account for the vast majority of the total cost of any commercial building. The new rating system, which was just released last fall by the International Well Building Institute, is in its pilot testing phase, but already a number of companies and organizations are jumping on board. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), which is transforming its 20-year-old Washington, D.C. headquarters into a state-of-the-art Center for Landscape Architecture, will aim for both LEED Platinum and WELL Silver in its renovation.
At an event in Washington, D.C., Whitney Austin Gray, International Well Building Institute, said WELL will help architects “design out health problems.” Like others, she believes the built environment has a major impact on health, mostly a negative one. Chronic diseases — like obesity and stress — are in large part created by poor environments that encourage sitting and eating fattening foods, and limit walking and access to nature. As a result, “planners, architects, landscape architects have a bigger impact on our health than physicians.”
As Nathan Stodola, also with the Institute, explained, the new system, which is being tested in everything from residential to commercial to restaurant environments, has 7 categories, with 102 features, and 450 requirements. Categories include air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. WELL seeks to create indoor building environments that “create habitats for life.” The prerequisites and credits are based on “best empirical research and practices.”
Gray provided a brief run-down of each of the seven categories as they relate to offices:
Air: Indoor air quality and building materials are deeply linked. “There are about 75,000 chemicals in existence. About 7,000 have been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a further 700 are known to be carcinogenic.” While it’s hard to establish a causal relationship between exposure to a chemical and cancer, “we can look at the chemicals in a environment we don’t know the impact of and take precautions.” WELL calls for both strict air quality testing and details on the materials of all products used in the building.
Water: While there is source treatment of water in the U.S., urban water infrastructure is eroding and outdated building pipes can be problematic. “There is great misuse of water in infrastructure.” WELL aims to get all heavy metals out of the water coming into a building and moving through it. For some buildings, that will mean completely redoing the pipes.
Nourishment: “We need to create full health for employees, which means staff cafeterias or caterers don’t serve fried foods.” Gray also talked about making smart use of “choice architecture.” For example, cafeteria managers can put healthy food front and center and make it more difficult to get to the M&Ms. “We have to make it easy to do the healthy thing.”
Light: “We are concerned with circadian rhythm issues. Humans are meant to be exposed to light; its how our organs function and repair themselves.” Gray said there are studies showing that shift workers who don’t have access to daylight have higher rates of some cancers. “Light is not optional, but far too often it’s a privilege.” Already, some $63 billion in company losses can be associated with poor work performance due to sleep deprivation, which can be tied to issues with the circadian rhythm.
Fitness: “Employees need to be active throughout the day.” To accomplish this, employers must realize not all environments are for everyone. “It’s not ideal for employees to be sitting 8 hours a day. Going to the gym for half an hour in the morning it’s going to help.” Wider staircases can help as well as using “choice architecture” to force people to circulate.
Comfort: This is about everything from acoustics to temperatures to ergonomics and even smell. If any of these things are off, they can cause stress.
Mind: “Buildings need to incorporate beauty and equity.” Employees should have access to everything from spaces for respite to progressive travel policies to paid volunteer work opportunities, in the effort to restore productivity and improve wellness.
Already, efforts to achieve WELL are shaping the overall design of the new ASLA headquarters. For example, ASLA is cutting a hole through its roof, putting in a light well with a sunbeamer that will intensify and direct light all the way into the basement level so all employees benefit (see image above).
But putting all WELL asks for into practice may prove to be a challenging but fun puzzle, said Gensler architect Katie Mesia, who explained how LEED rewards buildings for reducing energy use and therefore lighting use, while WELL calls for having “light on your face and in your eyes” at all times to restore the natural circadian rhythm. She said this will be tricky to reconcile the competing requirements, but one possible solution will be to use blue lights, which have a healthier color temperature under cabinets and in task lighting, leaving out ceiling lights all together.
Another challenge relates to water: D.C.’s water standards are about 4 times lower than what WELL wants. “The standard here is not good.” A water filtration system would need to be added to ASLA’s building, but the existing mechanical system doesn’t have space for UV light or carbon filters. Replacing the existing system may be cost-prohibitive.
But Mesia is optimistic she can find solutions with ASLA: “they are a special, progressive client. I’m getting into the heart of their business, and they have opened and exposed all of that.” Plus, using LEED and WELL in combination has meant the challenge is really just “choosing between multiple healthy solutions.”
Singapore has long aspired to be a “city in a garden.” Since the early 1960s, the 300-square-mile city-state has been serious about preserving nature and also greening underused spaces. In 1970, President Lee Kuan Yew dictated that there were to be “no brownfields;” all empty space would be planted. Today there are 5.4 million people packed into the island, but nearly 10 percent of the country is covered in parks, many of them newly created. More than 300 neighborhood and regional parks along with four nature preserves are in the process of being connected through hundreds of kilometers of greenways. Now, Singapore’s Changi airport, the sixth busiest in the world, is getting the same treatment as the rest of the country — its being greened, in an exciting way that re-conceives the experience of the airport.
Safdie Architects and PWP Landscape Architecture are creating a spherical “air hub,” a 134,000-square-meter bio-dome, in the center of Changi so even brief visitors passing through Singapore will get a sense of this garden-city as they walk through the interior landscape.
According to Safdie Architects, the glass dome will be home to gardens and walking trails, accessible via multiple levels.
The centerpiece will be a “rain vortex,” a 40-meter-tall waterfall fed by recycled rainwater collected from the dome.
This being Singapore, the land of shopping malls, some 4 million square feet of retail, hotel, restaurant and entertainment space will circle the exterior of the gardens.
The entire structure will be supported by a ring of tree-like columns at the outside edge of the gardens.
Safdie told DesignBoom: “This project redefines and reinvents what airports are all about. The new paradigm is to create a diverse and meaningful meeting place that serves as a gateway to the city and country, complementing commerce and services with attractions and gardens for passengers, airport employees, and the city at large.”
Work began at the end of 2014, and the dome is expected to open in 2018.
Colwell Shelor Landscape Architecture, West 8 Urban Design + Landscape Architecture, and Weddle Gilmore have won a design competition to create Mesa City Center, a new civic space destined to accelerate urbanization in Mesa, a city of more than 450,000 in the greater, sprawled-out suburban area surrounding Phoenix, Arizona. A major investment in making this part of the country more walkable, the new 19-acre town square will be a “catalyst for the next 100 years of urban growth in downtown Mesa,” argued Colwell Shelor, the lead landscape architects. The new downtown public spaces will be financed with park bonds, approved by voters in 2012. This project, like the new Klyde Warren Park in Dallas and the Newport Beach Civic Center in California, indicates that more heavily car-centric cities are making ambitious investments in high-quality public space, because people everywhere want these amenities and are willing to pay for them.
“Today, the site is a mix of parking lots and municipal buildings. When complete, Mesa City Center will feature a signature public space that will catalyze new development and enliven Mesa’s downtown core,” said Michele Shelor, ASLA, principal, Colwell Shelor. And from design partner West 8’s Jamie Maslyn Larson, ASLA, we hear: “Cities around the country have been shaped around their ‘village green’ or town square. These places are oases in the city. We started thinking, this is what Mesa wants — its own town square, but with a twist, so that it’s a place people from all over the state will revisit again and again.”
The new space is “characterized by generous spaces for flexible uses, inviting landscapes celebrating the Sonoran desert, and ground floor uses with public-oriented programs that draw people into and through Mesa City Center to Main Street, the Arts Center, Convention Center, and residential neighborhoods.”
The center piece of the design is a new events space that will both accommodate larger festivals along with weekly events like a farmer’s market, exercise classes, and movies in the park.
The new space features a unique copper shade structure with an “evaporative cooling tower,” which will “mitigate the dry, hot climate with added moisture and a consistent, cooling breeze.” According to Colwell Shelor, “similar constructions have been shown to drop air temperatures by fifteen to twenty degrees. The surface will also host a projection screen for performances and movie screenings.”
Part of the structure is set within a pool of water. In the renderings, this undulating form will also provide the frame for swings, making this a mecca for kids.
And the pool will become an ice-skating rink in winter.
An upper terrace will create have a more informal feel, with Sonoran Desert-themed gardens and smaller plazas.
A promenade will connect the plaza and upper terrace, with a path lined with seating and trees.
Sustainability is a focus. Allison Colwell, ASLA, a principal at Colwell Shelor, explained: “A guiding principle of the design is to incorporate sustainable measures into all aspects of the design so that the Mesa City Center will be a model for environmentally sensitive and energy-efficient development. A few of the strategies we will consider are adaptive reuse of existing buildings, an evaporative cooling tower, bio-retention planters, rainwater harvesting, solar power, use of grey water, and permeable paving.”
Furthermore, “the overarching landscape strategy is to use native plants as the backbone of different plant communities for seasonal beauty, diversity, and habitats, and to use stormwater and greywater to support these plant communities.”
City Hall itself may also contribute to the the sustainability of the overall design. The team proposes a 150 kW solar parasol over the roof, creating an inviting rooftop public space with great views.
The parasol will provide shade but also generate approximately 260,000 kWh/yr. power.
In New Orleans, GreenBuild participants filled an auditorium to hear world-famous author and alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra speak. He shared his road map for “higher health” and discussed practical ways to experience higher consciousness, transformation, and healing.
Chopra serves on the advisory board of Delos, a real estate development and research company that has developed the WELL Building Standard®, the first protocol of its kind to focus on human wellness in the built environment.
“I want you to have a sense of wonder over the mystery of your own being,” Chopra told the audience. He posed two of the “most important unsolved scientific questions,” namely: what the universe is made of? and what is the biological basis of consciousness?
These questions are important because “suffering happens when we don’t know the true nature of reality.” The universe is mostly “nothing, with only five percent made up of atoms.” It’s a “mysterious force holding your body together.”
The universe is also “consciousness and its contents,” and therefore, according to Chopra, “you are the localization of the entire universe.”
“This leads us to a very fundamental idea—you are the immediate environment, the room you’re in, the air you breathe,” added Chopra.
He cited the WELL Building Standard® as a means to connect people within the built environment and optimize their well being. He also described hospitals as “the next frontier in building standards” because creating “the right environment can improve the poor quality air, bad food, and anxiety” often found in healthcare environments.
Chopra ended his talk by leading a relaxing meditation. Once the audience opened their eyes, they gave him a standing ovation.
Achieving sustainability requires more than just enacting forward-thinking legislation—it also requires compliance with laws and regulations. This was the message of Gina Bocra, chief sustainability officer; Emily Hoffman, director of energy code compliance; and Holly Savoia, director of sustainability enforcement, all with the New York City government, as they spoke at this year’s GreenBuild conference in New Orleans.
The three work for New York City’s department of buildings’ sustainability unit, one of the largest of its kind in the country. Informally known as “NYC’s Green SWAT Team,” the panelists and their staff are charged with helping the city meet its goal of reducing greenhouse emissions by 30 percent by 2030. They have a tremendous task, as nearly three quarters of NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from the building sector.
The city’s groundbreaking Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, which was enacted in December 2009, is actually composed of four laws that address benchmarking, energy codes, audits and retro-commissioning, and lighting and submetering. [To further explain, retro-commissioning is a whole-building systems-based approach to improving an existing building’s performance.] These laws have to be enforced to be effective. “We provide some incentives, but we also hold the stick,” said Bocra. “We focus on fines and violations, but the goal is compliance.”
According to Hoffman, in January 2014 the unit began inspecting all new and renovated buildings for energy efficiency. A sustainability plan examiner reviews the energy code, and an inspection team, which may include third party inspectors, ensures the building is meeting the code as it is being built. So far, inspectors have looked at 2,600 new building applications, 4,500 major alterations applications, and 60,000 minor alterations applications.
Hoffman said the inspectors often encounter a “mind boggling” number of documentation and administrative errors and other technical issues. For instance, the square footage of areas don’t add up, or the U-factors (showing how part of a building conducts heat) are thrown in without any supporting documentation. As a result, Crain’s New York reported that nine out of ten commercial and residential projects fail on their first try to get their applications approved.
According to Savoia, sustainability inspectors make objections after comprehensive review. Half of submissions were returned last year due to “minor” issues, including missing owner signatures and improperly filled out forms. However, the unit is having an incredibly positive effect: compliance with local laws governing annual benchmarking of energy use, energy audits, and retro-commissioning increased from 76 percent in 2011 to 84 percent in 2012.
Hoffman acknowledged that “the energy code is really complex. There are different paths to compliance for residential and commercial buildings. It’s really difficult to understand this stuff, and so we have to provide more education.”
“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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.