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On September 19th and 20th, visitors flooded Union Square in New York to see a dozen high-art shacks. Welcome to Sukkah City. These were the winners of an architectural competition entered by more than 600 teams, each working under rules elaborated in the Talmud. Architects submitted designs of a sukkah, a temporary structure in which one shares meals, contemplates, and sleeps—climate permitting—for one week. The voluntary homelessness that marks the Sukkot holiday commemorates the exile of the Israelites from Egypt and celebrates the fall harvest.
The celebration of Sukkot is a time to live together outside, and a connection to the sky is the most salient piece of the design brief. Many of the rules for building a sukkah regard the roof. There are guidelines for the degree of porosity, the way parts are fastened, and the provenance and size of building materials. Signifying the harvest season, the schach roof can only be made from natural materials no longer connected to the ground. The structure has to provide more shade than sunlight, and, inside, the sky must remain visible.
Mirroring current trends in architecture, two types of sukkah comprised Sukkah City. The first type used a single building block as a point of departure. This element was then repeated and manipulated to create texture and visual interest, as well as, in some cases, dynamic form and movement. Sukkahs of this type treated the roof in a uniform manner, with individual pieces repeating until the units blurred into a monolithic whole. The architects used their ingenuity to dream up the building block and connection piece. Then, they pushed their system of components toward its formal limits, exploring all combinative possibilities. The effects here include serenity, calm, busyness, and relentless pattern.
In Shim Sukkah, for example, the designer exploits the taper of the shims, anchoring the thick ends and allowing the thin ends to fan out and intersect, creating comb-like textures and rhythmically interrupted views. Use of a shim is typically an afterthought, a way to fix mistakes. Here, however, the shim is elevated to near luxury: it forms a porous partition that becomes the structure itself. The roof and walls are treated the same way, yielding a form that alters shape in its surface but always retains its essential box shape. It changes rigorously, yet remains the same. In the end, Shim Sukkah wants to be as transparent as possible, to disappear. The nearby piles of sawdust hint that given enough time, the force of rotation could grind the shims to piles of even smaller shims on the ground.
During a holiday commemorating the survival of Israelites brought out of Egypt, Sukkah of the Signs employs as its very building blocks the contemporary flotsam of exile. Falling in the same “repeated element” category as Shim Sukkah, this sukkah also multiplies one unit into a surface texture. But here, the repeating element (cardboard signs asking for support) is handcrafted by very different people in a similar situation (homelessness). In this instance, the structure of the building is secondary—it acts more as an armature to support these signs, a kind of activist billboard. Each sign draws attention to a particular life. Taken as a whole, the body of signs demands attention to a failing social and economic system.
It’s fitting, then, that an auction of Sukkah of the Signs (as well as the other winning sukkahs), was set to benefit Housing Works, a charity fighting homelessness. Unfortunately, it appears no one entered a $5,000 minimum bid at HW’s online auction. But maybe that failure to sell at auction signifies success in design. After all, these are not the sukkahs one would find in Sukkah Depot. These designs are meant to give pause, to provoke and to stir discussion.
The second type of sukkah is harder to pin down than the “repeating element” type. Structures in this group are made from an assemblage of disparate parts and, given their layering and composite form, the designs are not graspable at first glance. Complex juxtapositions of structural material blur the natural and artificial worlds. These sukkahs are hairy and fuzzy and critically challenging.
Blo Puff, for example, feels like a carefully orchestrated yet completely ad hoc collection of materials. The sheer variety of colors, textures, and sources of material offers multivalent appeal. Through a plastic bubble, eucalyptus branches become desaturated and abstracted into pattern. The branches offer little shelter but much texture and fragrance. Sitting on plush cushions looking through this sukkah’s netted air donut feels like sitting in a desert oasis looking through a terrarium. Inhabitants are buffered from the elements but allowed a mediated view through the transparent roof. Blo Puff is its own world: a capsule dropped in from an exotic futuristic past.
LOG plays the most with the limits of kosher. It is a sukkah with an 18-foot tree trunk as a roof. This feels simultaneously appropriate and confounding. The log concentrates the solid part of the roof, allowing for larger openings—arguably creating the most openness. Yet it asserts itself, and you cannot look up without being aware of it. The log’s psychological force bears down even while it’s physically suspended.
LOG invokes the post-and-lintel roots of architecture by featuring the most elemental building block—wood in its essential form—but its steel and glass walls betray an industrial aesthetic. This juxtaposition of rough-hewn and slick materials is a contemporary trend, and the log is something of a sign, more iconic than functional. While inviting others to gaze into your Sukkot meditation and visitation, the Log sukkah also reflects its surroundings. The overlapping scenes behind and beyond the observer collapse space in a partly transparent, partly mirrored surface. This spatial mirroring/transparency evokes the time-collapse of the holiday itself: the immediacy of meditation and visitation combined with ritual modeling of ancestral conditions, a measured re-creation of the exodus.
Fractured Bubble honors the agricultural roots of Sukkot, bringing holiday observers into what feels like a chestnut burr—foreboding spikiness on the outside, patterned hominess inside. Though it’s made of marsh grasses from Queens, the deliberate foregrounding of vegetation lends universality to this sukkah. It speaks directly to the autumn harvest, displaying the lulav and etrog, over which morning prayers are recited. The bubble is fractured into three parts, allowing for physical entry and exit as well as for the critical exposure of the schach, a roof created simply by extending the phragmites grasses up to the sky. This sukkah captures the spirit of Sukkot both through the authenticity of its vegetated cladding and through its use of elemental shapes. Indeed, Fractured Bubble was the “2010 People’s Choice Sukkah of New York City,” and the only sukkah to remain in Union Square throughout Sukkot.
Sukkah City allowed visitors to mark the change of seasons, to participate in a religious holiday, and to engage with public art. Hearing people discuss and critique architecture in Union Square was a rare delight. Photographer Matthew Connors joined me in visiting the exhibition, and he details many of the schach in the slideshow images above.
The roofs pictured reveal not only the sky but also the architects’ stances on Sukkot. Whether a pile of sticks gesturing toward the heavens, a mess of wires strung with linear vegetation, or a waffle grid of two-by-fours, the schach frames the starlit sky and becomes a window to the past. The challenge goes beyond the prohibition of utensils as building material and the requirement to provide more shade than sunlight. Designers must create a shelter both habitable enough to spend a week in and uninhabitable enough to connect celebrants to the suffering of their ancestors. The best ones are surprising, thought-provoking, and kosher.
Matthew Connors is an artist and an Associate Professor of Photography at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. He has exhibited in New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Milan, Stockholm and Madrid, and his work can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. He lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Sunmin Whang is a practicing architect in New York. She is a partner in General Architecture / Collaborative, who are working to build a community center with a local women's NGO in Rwanda. GA/C is currently exhibiting "Tirana Local: Albanian Cultural Delivery Service on Rails" at the Venice Biennale of Architecture.