For the past few years, the Oregon Jewish Museum has put on an architectural exhibit every fall. They ask designers, architects, and individuals for contemporary takes on Sukkah design. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, a Sukkah is a temporary booth put up during the Jewish holiday Sukkot.
A fall holiday held in October or September, Sukkot celebrates the forty years Moses and the Children of Israel spent wandering the deserts of Egypt searching for the promise land. In addition to remembering history, revelers also celebrate the fall harvest. The cornerstone of Sukkot is the Sukkah (indeed, the word Sukkot is derived from the word Sukkah, which means “booth”). These booths represent the shelters dwelled in by the wanderers. During Sukkot Jews are to perform several activities in the booth, including eating and sleeping. There are very strict rules for design and construction, and a normal Sukkah takes the form of a rectangular booth. Yet these rules can be interpreted in a variety of creative ways, and Sukkah PDX takes advantage of this, asking applicants to reinvent the Sukkah according to the themes of impermeability, sustainability, and aesthetics.
When it comes down to it, Sukkot is primarily about living for a week as the Children of Israel would have lived during those wandering years, and so we designed our Sukkah with the intention of symbolically transporting revelers to that time and place.
The most important part of the Sukkah is the roof covering, called the Sechach, which must be made of plant material and provide more than 50 percent shade while also being open to the stars. Our Sechach is blue plant-dyed cotton string strung from wall to wall, with white string highlighting constellations that the wanderers would have seen when looking up at the night sky from Mount Sinai in late September/early October.
The walls will be cotton fabric plant-dyed in a gradient of white to blue, so as to symbolically fade into night. Instead of four walls, we have five, so that with the ceiling and ground, it is a booth with seven sides. This was inspired by the seven clouds of glory that are said to have protected the wanderers during their journey. In fact, some interpretations say that rather than physical booths, the Children of Israel sheltered in these clouds.
To celebrate the harvest (and also do double duty as structural support) we plan to build wood planters outside the edge of the Sukkah and plant wheat. The planters also extend into the Sukkah to provide seating.
Part of the design prompt was to consider what happens to the Sukkah after the holiday. We plan not just to recycle the Sukkah afterward, but to use recycled materials for construction. From our job sites we can salvage wood and demolition debris to build the structure and planters, and painter’s cloths for the fabric. After the Sukkah is dismantled, the planters will be installed at a future job site, the fabric sewed into craft projects, and the Sechach will become a wall-hung art piece.
Participating in Sukkah PDX was an opportunity for us to push the design envelope and think about construction in a new way, an exercise in something other than our usual house and commercial design. What we liked about Sukkah PDX was that these projects actually get built—the perfect kind of competition for a design/build.
For more information on Sukkah PDX, the Oregon Jewish Museum, and it’s partners in this exhibit, click here.
“A Standard Sukkah” image from http://www.sukkot.com