Every year, after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, observant Jews build temporary huts (singular, sukkah; plural, sukkot) in their back or front yards in celebration of the holiday of Sukkot (capitalized, the word refers to the entire holiday, sometimes called the Festival of Booths). Most will take their meals outside, and some of the most religiously strict will sleep out there as well. The structures are a callback to the uncertainty of life in the post-Exodus era, before the Hebrews managed to make their way to the Promised Land; today, in a world where many are homeless because of natural disaster or human devastation, the lessons of temporariness are familiar to us all.
Several months ago, New York Magazine issued a challenge to artists worldwide, launching a design competition called “Sukkah City”, asking artists to combine religious tradition with architectural radicalism in creating their own interpretation of what constitutes short-term shelter, a la the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Twelve finalists were selected and their structures will stand in Union Square on Sept. 19 and 20. Readers will choose the winner.
Artists were asked to adhere to the traditional guidelines of sukkah-building:
The Talmud demands that a sukkah have at least two and a half walls, a roof that allows indwellers to see the stars and feel the rain but nevertheless stay mostly in the shade. The roof must be made of uprooted organic material–twigs or fronds, say–but no food or utensils (no chopstick thatching allowed). Mystifyingly, the rabbis of yore explicitly permitted the carcass of an elephant to be used as one of the walls. (No contestants took advantage of that option, sensing perhaps that the Department of Buildings or PETA might not concur.)
My personal favorite? Gathering, by Dale Suttle, So Sugita and Ginna Nguyen from New York.
This “calculated yet unpredictable structure,” in the words of its designers, is constructed from a nonlinear assemblage of wooden sticks that guide the eye toward the sky. “Whether wandering through the desert for 40 years or through the city for a day, all people desire respite. The sukkah is an icon for this relief from transience.”
The article adds that the structure evokes the burning bush. But visually, what Gathering reminds me of is the story of the Jews’ wandering in the desert, following God’s presence – a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Additionally, the shape evokes a fire, perhaps of the Temple sacrifices era, with flames of different lengths stretching skyward.
What’s New York Magazine’s interest in this strange autumnal holiday? The article notes that New York itself is a “perpetually provisional city”:
New Yorkers live in too-small apartments they hope to trade in, cherish buildings that stand only until some developer decides to tear them down, and reform entire neighborhoods that reach a momentary sense of identity before changing again. Temporary, we get.
Do you have a favorite design? What do these designs evoke for you?