The Sukkah is an ancient yet ephemeral form of architecture. In Jewish tradition, these small temporary structures — places to share meals, entertain, sleep and rejoice — are erected each autumn during Sukkot, a weeklong harvest festival and remembrance for the 40 years Jews spent wandering in the desert.
In October, the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, in partnership with St. Louis Hillel at Washington University and The Museum of ImaJewnation, will host Sukkah City STL, a design competition and exhibition that reimagines the Sukkah through the lens of contemporary art and architecture.
“The biblical narrative of the Sukkah commemorates the temporary dwellings of the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt,” says Rabbi Andrew Kastner of St. Louis Hillel, who is organizing the competition with Brian Newman, adjunct lecturer in the Sam Fox School.
“But it also represents universal ideas of transience and permanence, as expressed through architecture and ritual,” Kastner says. “The Sukkah is a means of ceremonially practicing homelessness, while at the same time maintaining a close proximity to the comforts of our modern, sheltered world.”
Newman, who also serves as a project manager in the university’s facilities department, says Sukkah City STL was inspired by a similar competition held last fall in New York. He notes that, on the question of just what constitutes a Sukkah, Talmudic law is at once fluid and exacting.
“The Sukkah is less a particular building type than a set of design parameters and a tangle of complex juxtapositions,” Newman says. “The structure must be temporary, yet sturdy enough to remain unshaken by a continuous wind. It must have three walls, but only two walls need to be completed. It is a shelter and must include a roof, yet that roof must be open to the sky, allowing visitors to see the stars.”
Subtitled “Defining and Defying Boundaries,” Sukkah City STL asks participants to focus on the role of boundaries — whether material, cultural or metaphorical — in defining our lives and the ways we relate to an increasingly global society.
“The Sukkah is a kind of physical manifestation of boundaries,” Kastner says. “It both embodies both the promise of refuge and embraces the vulnerability of exposure to the elements. For participants, the challenge will be not only to build a Sukkah that meets the traditional criteria, but also to examine and express a boundary issue that exists today within our collective lives.”
Sukkah City STL is open to artists, architects and designers of all faiths and backgrounds, working in teams or as individuals. The deadline for submissions is Wednesday, Sept. 14. A panel of architects, designers, critics, academics and religious thinkers will then select 10 designs for construction, with each project receiving a small honorarium to help defray building costs.
Completed Sukkahs will be installed on Washington University’s Danforth Campus from Oct. 18-22.
“The jury will be looking for projects that embrace dynamic, forward-thinking design possibilities; suggest new ways of interacting with physical space; and respond to contemporary issues such as homelessness, immigration and environmental sustainability,” Kastner says.
“Ultimately, each entry must be constructible,” Kastner says. “It must obey the ancient rules that define a Sukkah as well as the laws of physics.”