Temporary Housing Of The Highest Order

Sukkah competition in Union Square to highlight modernist designs conformed to ancient architectural principles.

09/07/2010
Staff Writer
One of the winning sukkah designs is “Gathering,” by the team Dale Suttle, So Sugita and Ginna Nguyen.
One of the winning sukkah designs is “Gathering,” by the team Dale Suttle, So Sugita and Ginna Nguyen.

It wasn’t easy getting more than a dozen major architecture figures in the room to decide what makes a great sukkah.

So when Reboot, a nonprofit that promotes modernizing Jewish traditions, did just that—putting together a star-studded panel to determine 12 winning designs for a sukkah competition in Union Square later this month—it was anyone’s guess how they might respond to rabbinical injunctions.

“As a Jew, I found it interesting to rethink the sukkah,” said Michael Arad, one of the 14 jurors, and the architect of the Sept. 11 Memorial at Ground Zero. Other panelists include the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne; Paul Goldberger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic; and Ron Arad (no relation to Michael), who recently had a solo show at MoMA.

So when the contest’s rabbi told Michael Arad that some of his picks were not kosher, he was flabbergasted. “At times, I chafed at the some of the restrictions,” he said. “As a secular Jew I find that we are sometimes too beholden to rabbinic authority.”

But in the end, rabbinic authority prevailed. “We tried to be really rigorous about it,” said Joshua Foer, one of the two organizers of the event, which is called “Sukkah City” and runs Sept. 19 and Sept. 20. Foer and co-founder Roger Bennett were determined to keep the spirit of the holiday, and Reboot, intact. “The mission of Reboot is to reinvent ritual,” said Bennett.

Bennett added that the prestigious panel and the viral spread of the contest—which, by the Aug. 1 deadline had more than 600 entrants, many from non-Jews and some from countries as far away as China, India and Turkey—should not detract from the event’s essential purpose. It is to celebrate Sukkot, the week-long festival beginning on Sept. 23. “It [is] not just a competition,” Bennett said, but a chance to “engage all New Yorkers and make them think about the values of the festival.”

For the architects entering the competition, it was that, but also much more. “I have an amazing track record of projects that don’t get built,” said Babak Bryan, 34, who along with his partner Henry Grosman, 35, designed a winning sukkah. Called “Fractured Bubble,” it features three tulip-shaped walls covered in a wild grass called phragmites, which lines much of the New Jersey turnpike.

The two have seen many of their own designs realized in their respective careers. But rarely has a public competition guaranteed what “Sukkah City” has: a chance to actually see their design constructed, even if it must be torn down two days later. “There’s a lot of competitions,” Grosman said, echoing Babak. “But there are not a lot where you know what you design is actually going to get built.”

The finalists were promised $10,000 each to construct their own sukkah. And while the Jewish laws defining the structure may have seemed prohibitive, many of the entrants said they were precisely the opposite. “The constraints are really an opportunity,” said Kyle May, 26, who, with partner Scott Abrahams, 37, also designed a winning sukkah. “I was excited about it as soon as I read through the brief” of contest rules.

Many of the laws that make a sukkah kosher — and that are required for all “Sukkah City” designs—seem abstruse on the surface. If a sukkah needs only three walls, for instance, why must only one of those walls be partially built? Why must the roof be made out of “schach,” usually interpreted as leafs, branches or twigs? And why must every piece of the roof be less than four hand-lengths wide?

The answer, says Dani Passow, an Orthodox rabbinical student who supervised the contest, is that many of the rules are premised on a core idea: that a sukkah be only temporary.

Rabbis mandated these structures be built for Sukkot, a holiday that commemorates the 40 years the Hebrews spent wandering the desert. Jews might better imagine their ancient history by building and living in something similar, if only for a few days. “The whole rationale behind the four-hand-length rule,” Passow said, “is so that [the structure] doesn’t resemble a permanent home.”

Many of the laws were made centuries ago, which explains some of their strangeness. Passow included a few of the odder rabbinic pronouncements too as food for thought (and quirkiness): a sukkah may be built on a camel; it cannot, however, be made out of utensils.

But more interesting questions arose from the actual contest. There was some discussion as to whether a sukkah is kosher if it is neither designed for nor built by Jews. After all, wine is not kosher if it is made entirely by non-Jewish vintners. But Passow used the precedent that many Jewish day schools have their sukkot built by non-Jewish groundskeepers, so how was this any different? So long as it was made for the Jewish holiday, it was fine.

There was also the question of whether a sukkah is kosher if you know it will be torn down before the holiday even begins. Jewish law requires that a sukkah be built for the actual holiday, and probably not a mere contest beforehand. But for the city to approve the event, it required that the sukkah stand for only two days, and on the days they chose. Those dates — Sept. 19 and 20 — are not the actual holiday.

To get around this one, Passow argued that the sukkahs were all being built with the intention of being used on the holiday. And just to be sure, the contest is holding a “people’s choice” vote on Sept. 20, where the most popular sukkah will remain in use throughout the holiday. It will just be transported to a warehouse in Brooklyn, where finalists are now building their structures.

When Passow brought a few of these questions to his fellow rabbinical students at the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, he said, “the yeshiva just came alive” with debate. And that, from Foer and Bennett’s perspective, was exactly the point. “I realized that there could be an incredibly creative conversation in what a sukkah could be,” said Foer. The rules, he added, “seem to really invite a creative response.”

Kyle May and Scott Abrahams’ sukkah, called “LOG,” is a good example. Nearly all of the traditional sukkahs they looked at online were covered by small twigs. But rather than simply riff off that theme, they inverted it, replacing dozens of small branches with a giant wood log. “We’re like, what if we exaggerate the twigs into one huge log?” said Abrahams.

If they kept that log narrower than the four-hand-width requirement, they felt they were not breaking any law. But Passow was skeptical: after May and Abrahams made it to the semifinal round of 24, Passow called them to say that the log didn’t seem to meet another rabbinic rule about roofs, that water be able to pass through it.

“We assumed the rain would come through either side of the log,” said May, “but Dani said it had to be able to actually go through the roof.” Abrahams quickly thought of a solution: what if they drilled holes in the log, would that count?

Passow was taken aback. He mulled it over with some other rabbinical students and they couldn’t find any reason why not. “Then,” May said, “Dani asked how many holes? We said two. He said four. We said, ‘OK, sold.’”

Their design had its heksher, and was eventually selected as a finalist.

The architects said that each of its components is now being constructed. A miller in upstate New York is cutting down a tree for the roof. And a metal workshop is now making the rivets needed to fasten the third part together: four glass walls holding up the rooftop log.

The glass is also currently being cut, and will stand at two separate ends of the sukkah in crisscrossing pairs. The glass walls were inspired by the rule requiring a sukkah to draw viewers’ eyes towards the roof; and up through it, into the sky.

But the rule is also reflected by an engineering idea embedded in the design. The log actually does more to stabilize the glass walls than the glass walls do to stabilize the roof. Abrahams said that this meshes with its Jewish function: “It ties in nicely as a religious metaphor: a structure that has its foundation from above.”

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