Tradition Meets Modernity in New York's Sukkah City Competition

Since the competition was announced in May, 600 architects, designers and artists from around the world have submitted original designs for modern-day sukkahs.

Just after the final Yom Kippur prayers were recited this past Saturday evening, 12 unusual looking structures made of barbed wire, grass, cardboard and wood - and some from a bit of each - were put up in Manhattan's Union Square. And so, as the time to begin marking the autumn holiday of Sukkot got underway, the cornerstone was laid for the Sukkah City competition, which seeks to put a contemporary spin on an ancient Jewish ritual.

Sukkah City competition Christopher Farber
Christopher Farber

Since the competition was announced in May, 600 architects, designers and artists from around the world have submitted original designs for modern-day sukkahs. A venerable team of judges selected 12 finalists, which were then constructed in Union Square. The huts will be on display until midnight tonight and then dismantled, except for one chosen by the audience that will be left on view to passersby until October 2.

Click here for video, 'A Walk Through Sukkah City' on The Forward

In New York City, home to the largest population of Jews outside of Israel, one finds a wide range of traditions and levels of religious observance. Some members of the community visit synagogues every week, while others do so only on holidays. Some hang mezuzahs on the entrance to their homes and fast on Yom Kippur, while their friends make do with lighting Hanukkah candles or participating in community center activities.

What is certain is that with the high density that characterizes New York living, and the almost total lack of balconies, very few Jewish residents, whether they're religiously observant or completely secular, build a sukkah. Outside of the ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg and other parts of Brooklyn, a sukkah is a rare sight indeed, and those which do exist are found in remote corners like backyards and synagogue parking lots.

Hoping to change New York Jews' chilly approach toward the sukkah, journalists Joshua Foer and Roger Bennett of Reboot, an organization which addresses contemporary Jewish identity, came up with the idea of holding a competition. The event combines marketing, design and a touch of tradition, exactly the thing to attract young and educated American Jews.

"The sukkah used to be one of the most important traditions maintained by American Jews, but today they're built only by a small minority," says Bennett, 39. "I think the competition offers a chance to reflect on the meaning of the sukkah. The story may be biblical, but its values and content are quite relevant to the 21st century."

While the concept seemed a bit esoteric at the beginning, the response from the professional community was impressive. Some 600 entrants submitted designs, most of them non-Jews whose works offered intriguing interpretations of the sukkah tradition. Adding to the competition's gravity was the panel of judges, which included Israeli-British designer Ron Arad, Pritzker Prize winning architect Thom Mayne, and architecture critic for The New Yorker Paul Goldberger, among others.

Celebration of homelessness

If traditionally the sukkah was meant to commemorate the temporary structures built by the Israelites in the desert after the exodus from Egypt, from a more general point of view it also touches upon universal architectural elements such as transience, privacy and connection to the environment. The sukkah grants its guests a celebration of homelessness, underscores the change of seasons and recalls the agricultural past of the Jewish people. What is brilliant about this structure is that while there are certain parameters one must follow, it may be built in different forms and sizes, covered in natural or artificial materials, and divided inside in various ways.

Over the course of 1,500 years, Talmud sages developed a complex system of rules intended to answer nearly every Halakhic question related to the building of a sukkah. There are, for example, exact requirements for geometric proportions. The minimum size of a sukkah is a square, each of whose sides is seven handbreadths wide and at least 10 handbreadths high (55 and 80 centimeters, respectively ). It must have at least three walls, one of which can be partial. The Talmud is occupied with rather esoteric questions dealing precisely with every possible aspect of the building process. A sukkah, it turns out, can be built on top of a boat, a carriage or even a camel, as long as its roof is made of thatch through which the stars can be seen. The walls may be made from a range of materials, including whale or elephant skin, but they absolutely may not move in the wind.

Given how temporary the structure is, sukkah planners must think about production and the recycling of materials, more fashionable now than ever. The sukkahs in the New York competition offer intriguing combinations of old and new, permanent and transient, fixed and moveable, open and closed.

"The architects who entered the competition studied the planning rules in depth and are more familiar with them than most Jews," Bennett says. "In the end we examined the submissions according to the regulations in the Talmud, as well as those of the New York City planning and building commission. We approached both of them as if they came from God," he laughs.

Over the last week, the 12 chosen sukkahs were built in various workshops around the city - "the United Nations of sukkah builders," Bennett says - with each architects allotted a $10,000 budget.

Matthias Karch, a German architect from Berlin, built a sukkah based on three modules of three kinds of wood: olive, maple and walnut. Its expressive shape was inspired by a mathematic model developed by the Jewish German architect Konrad Wachsmann in the mid-20th century.

"The main idea of my project is to find inspiration in nature and create it artificially," Karch says. "The sukkah is a blend of inner and outer space. It should give people the feeling that they are sitting under a large tree, with some parts shadier and some lighter."

The digital sukkah created by Karch, 54, reflects the encounter between history and a super-contemporary style, and it is also kosher. He'd never heard of a sukkah before the competition, but wandering around Brooklyn he has seen how the ultra-Orthodox build theirs.

"It was an amazing sight: every terrace with a different structure. Even though I'm not Jewish, I hope I've managed to create a place that will speak to Jews. But I may be criticized for being too modern. I'm dying to know what they're saying in Brooklyn about my sukkah."

Architect Volkan Alkanoglu built his sukkah in the well-stocked workshop of the Southern California Institute of Architecture design department. Over a period of seven weeks, he recruited students and staff to help him build a complex structure made of bent bamboo wrapped in reeds. I interviewed him by telephone while he was traveling by truck from Los Angeles to New York, his sukkah safely ensconced in the giant cargo space.

Alkanoglu, 33, calls his sukkah by the poetic name Star Cocoon, which is supposed to reflect an intimate place in which to undergo a meditative process. He dealt with the unusual geometric limitations dictated by the Talmud and created a hut with two and a half walls, the minimum required for a kosher sukkah.

"I had heard about sukkahs, but never designed one myself. It was an honor to delve deeply into the laws and limitations in the Talmud," he says. "I wanted to create a functional, multi-purpose space with a roof, aesthetic and attractive of course. I think the combination of limitations is what produces uniqueness. It's enough to remove one restriction from the planning and the sukkah will look completely different."

Thematic huts

Shape is not the focus of every sukkah in the competition. The design team of Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello from California, for example, created a structure from hundreds of cardboard signs they collected from homeless people. They sought to relate to the biblical role of the sukkah as a temporary residence for the Israelites in the desert and arouse solidarity with the millions of homeless without a roof over their heads.

Another intriguing thematic work is that of the SO-IL architecture firm in Brooklyn, which also designed the temporary summer pavilion for New York's P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center. Their sukkah is a light wooden structure that can be carried around by one person.

"The sukkah portrays an exceptional architectural idea. It is modern and ancient at one and the same time, temporary, absent and present. These contradictions are very interesting," says Thomas de Monchaux, a New York architect and critic who helped organize Sukkah City.

De Monchaux, who is not Jewish, believes the competition attracted architects and designers of all religions, as well as atheists of course, because the idea behind the sukkah is universal.

"When I was a child I had a dream about being inside the Christmas tree my parents put up in the living room. People have created decorations or special structures for themselves in order to represent the sometimes hidden significance of tradition. While the sukkah is a concrete expression of a commandment more than a folkloristic tradition, like decorations on a Christmas tree, it reminds me of the same childish feeling of longing to climb under the green branches of the tree."

After the mayor of New York officially closes Sukkah City tonight, the competition's contributions to this holiday practice will certainly be examined. The sukkahs themselves will be auctioned off, with the proceeds donated to the homeless.

Bennett believes the event will strengthen the sukkah's standing in the Jewish world, in particular in the United States. "The American Jewish community is searching for identity and meaning in traditional rites, but from a very individual place," he says. "I think the sukkah can be one of the steps in this journey."