Sukkah Tents Give Architects Much to Dwell On

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Matanya Sack and Uri Reicher's "Sway," in Tel Aviv, August 2015.Credit: Dan Perez

Tents are sweeping the architectural world. True, architects build with bricks and mortar, and most undoubtedly have a stable roof over their heads. But the fantasy of building a light, temporary, portable tent, without feet on the ground, fires the imagination.

The intentions behind this trend are noble: inventing quick, cheap housing for the homeless; establishing shelters for the migrants and refugees currently roaming the earth in search of a better life; reducing the ecological footprint of construction. But until these social and environmental goals are realized, light construction resides mainly in professional journals, at architectural exhibitions or as seasonal pavilions on the lawn of well-regarded art galleries, which are currently the most sought-after locales for temporary light construction.

A new, exciting addition to the fashion for tents is “Sway,” a seasonal pavilion in the "Fugitive Structures" series sponsored by the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney, Australia. The pavilion, planned and built by Israeli architects Matanya Sack and Uri Reicher in cooperation with Liat Muller and Eyal Zur, opened about a month ago and will be in place until December 12.

Sack, Reicher, Muller and Zur were chosen for the job from among several Israeli architecture firms by the gallery’s owner, philanthropist Gene Sherman, who is considered a key player in the Sydney arts scene (and whose daughter lives in Israel). After years of focusing on art, she recently also became interested in architecture, and decided to sponsor the construction of temporary pavilions. “Sway” is the third annual pavilion to be built as part of this project.

Before being sent to Australia, the pavilion was erected on the roof of Sack and Reicher’s office in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood so they could test its feasibility and fine-tune it. Visiting it offered the exhilarating experience of having a home but feeling like you don’t (or vice versa).

From the street below, the pavilion looks like a breathtaking mirage in the sea of shabby roofs all around. The pavilion is a complex of arched spaces consisting of repeated featherweight modules – a mere 200 grams per square meter – that have a load-bearing capacity of 30 kilograms (66 pounds) apiece. The frame is an airy synthetic fabric stretched over thin, flexible aluminum poles and left fluttering at the edges. The pavilion was then dismantled, crated, flown to Australia and rebuilt on site.

The Israeli architects invited to enter the competition for planning the pavilion were asked to draw inspiration from the sukkah – the temporary hut in which religious Jews eat and sleep during the weeklong Sukkot holiday, and which has an honorable place in the Jewish nomadic ethos and history of temporary construction. But Sack and Reicher’s interpretation is far removed from the familiar structure of the sukkah. The pavilion they planned is more reminiscent of a caravan of Bedouin tents – back in the days when Bedouin actually lived in tents rather than tin shacks – or, alternatively, a wagon train for gold hunters in the Wild West.

The pavilion combines modern technology with hand- and scissors-work, creating the feeling of an unfinished work in the positive and promising sense of the word “unfinished.” The planners see it as “an alternative to architecture that is too expensive, too slow and too heavy – construction that takes nothing from the site except stories and leaves behind it nothing but memories.”

The direct inspiration for the Sydney pavilion project is the temporary summer pavilion project run by the Serpentine Galleries in London, which has already become a tradition. The Serpentine pavilions, in turn, continue the long-standing tradition of temporary pavilions at international exhibitions in Europe during the modern/colonial era, including groundbreaking pavilions that exert a huge influence over architecture and building to this very day.

One example of a pavilion that made history is the Crystal Palace, planned by British gardener Joseph Paxton for the first global industrial fair, London's Great Exhibition in 1851. This pavilion, with a cast-iron skeleton covered with transparent plate glass, has entered the architectural pantheon. It was destroyed by fire in 1936, but plans to rebuild it nearby as a permanent tourist attraction were recently scrapped.

The Serpentine is currently celebrating the 15th anniversary of its pavilion project, which garnered a worldwide reputation as soon as it began – both because of the nature of the project and, primarily, the parade of leading architects who were invited to take part in it. Zaha Hadid, for instance, planned the first summer pavilion in 2000; she was followed by Oscar Niemeyer, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Herzog & de Meuron, and others.

Over the past three years, however, the planners have been virtually unknown outside local circles. The nature of the pavilions has also changed. The first-generation pavilions were a kind of miniature edition of permanent, heavy buildings. The current pavilion, which belongs to the same family as the one in Sydney, soars easily. Time will tell whether they prove to be groundbreaking.

A sukkah on a Tel Aviv sidewalk.Credit: Nir Kedar

Meanwhile, in Europe

Faced with a growing refugee crisis, the question arising in architectural circles is whether tents can also be houses and whether architects can help solve the crisis – if only at the humanitarian level, by providing roofs.

“Tent,” as a general word for a temporary shelter, is the default option that immediately comes to mind. In Germany, for instance, refugees are being offered temporary shelter in anything that comes to hand: from recycled shipping containers – for which demand has recently risen by hundreds of percent – through huge hangars in Berlin's now-disused Tempelhof Airport, to abandoned buildings at the former concentration camp of Buchenwald.

But the temporary charm that surrounds gallery pavilions turns out to be a false charm when it comes to homes for the persecuted, to paraphrase Prof. Jörg Friedrich of the architecture department at the University of Hanover in Germany. In an interview with the online German newspaper DW, Friedrich voiced reservations about ad hoc solutions, no matter how creative.

Many of them aren’t fit for human habitation. They're crowded and suffocating, aren’t protected from the weather and are located in “ghettos” – poor neighborhoods in the suburbs of major cities. This, he said, is a recipe for individual suffering, tensions between various migrant communities, and friction and violence between migrants and the local population. The situation he describes is familiar in Israel as well.

Friedrich urged architects to develop a new type of permanent residence that would not only give the refugees decent living conditions, but also enable them to live in central neighborhoods alongside longtime locals. Their integration into the life of the city would benefit all parties and strengthen the city itself.

The history of German architecture shows that refugees’ dwellings can be woven into the municipal fabric and enrich it. So, for instance, in the late 17th century, Huguenot refugees from France settled in the main market square in Berlin, which is today known as Gendarmenmarkt. They left it with the French cathedral that turned the square into one of Berlin’s most beautiful spots.

German cities aren’t crowded, Friedrich said, and they have plenty of empty space for permanent housing. Students under his guidance have proposed a variety of types of residences for refugees in Hanover: on the flat roofs of 1950s-era residential buildings; in the spaces between existing buildings; in unused parking garages downtown; and more. The students plan to set a personal example by building an apartment for refugees on the roof of the department where they study.

An Afghan refugee looks out a tent where she and her family spent the night on the Austrian side of the Hungarian border, September 25, 2015.Credit: AP

Set against the backdrop of the Western world’s fear of the refugees’ migration, the plans by Friedrich and his students seem like dust in the wind. Or perhaps a ray of light in the darkness. Happy Sukkot.

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