Nearly one in four New Yorkers is Jewish. Some of them go to synagogue and some do not. Some hang mezuzahs on their doors, light Chanukkah candles, and fast on Yom Kippur, and some do not. But it is safe to say, due to the confines of the city, that few of them build sukkahs, the traditional shelters constructed in the fields in ancient times during the harvest festival of Sukkot. It is a practice that continues in Jewish backyards and synagogue parking lots worldwide. But outside of Chasidic communities of the city—where in the fall, the structures are plainly visible on each and every balcony—they are highly uncommon within the cramped quarter of New York, not least because Talmudic law forbids sukkahs inside.
Hoping to challenge not only New Yorkers’ notions about sukkahs but also the world’s, Joshua Foer has launched Sukkah City for this coming Sukkot. From September 19–21, a dozen experimental sukkahs will be constructed in Union Square Park, created by what Foer anticipates will be a mix of the world’s foremost architects and artists, though the competition is open to anyone, goyim included. “The idea is to take this ancient architectural identity and reinvent it and really see what we can do with it, to really push the boundaries,” Foer said.
For millennia, sukkahs have looked about the same. Three walls of varying dimensions and orientations with a roof made of organic matter—palm fronds, sugarcane, or cornhusks are among the common foliage—where more sky is visible than roof. A place of hospitality and reflection, it exists for just eight days. And it is within these relatively strict yet open-ended constraints that Foer and his partner on the project, critic Thomas de Monchaux, hope entrants will explore.
“Design is the search for constraints, so I think our expectation is that different designers will zero in on different aspects of the sukkah to produce something we’ve never seen before,” de Monchaux said. “We’re really hoping for a radicalized reaction to each of the constraints, though if someone wants to take them all on, we welcome that, too.”
Foer, a journalist who is the younger brother of New Republic editor Franklin and author Jonathan Safran, said he came up with the idea for the competition while building a sukkah last year in his backyard, using instructions he had found online, which he said he enjoyed but also thought could be done much better. Discussing the idea with de Monchaux, who also teaches at Columbia University’s architecture school, they eventually developed the idea for the competition.
Both said they found the sukkah compelling on numerous levels, not only architecturally but also spiritually. The competition is not meant to simply revive a rote, marginalized ritual object, but to give it new meaning and relevance. “It’s completely ephemeral and completely timeless and there aren’t many things that are both,” Foer said. “It’s beautiful while being tough, and it has a certain primal weirdness to it that just makes it so compelling.”
The competition is viewed as a fusion of the early days of the Venice Biennale and the P.S.1 summer pavilion competition. Each of the 12 teams selected will be given a decent budget—especially with the relatively modest scale of the project—and the expectation that, like the Israelites before them, they build the structures themselves.
Entrants must contend with the 30 or so design constraints drawn from religious texts, each with thousands of historical variations and interpretations, both rabbinical and architectural. These can be found on the competition website, as well as a registration, which must be completed by July 1 with designs due a month later.
A distinguished jury from across the design and cultural landscape has been selected, many of whom have Jewish roots. The jury consists of architects Thom Mayne, Adam Yarinsky, Ada Tolla, and Michael Arad; critics Paul Goldberger, Steven Heller, Geoff Manaugh, and Allan Chochinov; artists Maira Kalman and Natalie Jeremijenko; designer Ron Arad; AIA New York Chapter executive director Rick Bell; and de Monchaux.
Foer said he fully expects the event to become an annual one—not unlike the holiday itself—with hope for future outposts around the world. He added that there is plenty of programming planned for the sukkahs. “We don’t want this to be some dead village or ghost town of architecture,” he said. The weekend after the Union Square unveiling, the dozen Sukkahs will move to Flushing Meadows for Maker Faire, a DIY festival hosted by Make magazine.
Reboot, an organization that seeks to reinvigorate Judaism through fusing ancient and modern practices, is providing logistical and financial support for the competition. The group’s co-founder, Roger Bennett, said he was particularly excited about the possibility to inspire not only Jews but all New Yorkers. “Once this city of Sukkahs is actually constructed in Union Square, we’ll be focusing on the values of hospitality and invitation and making this a place where groups that don’t normally come together, to bring them together and celebrate,” Bennett said.