Moonrise Over Architecture

A competition by the Oregon Jewish Museum called for designs for a contemporary sukkah – a temporary dwelling erected for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Design me a structure that is open to the sky, partially enclosed, all natural materials, fragile, permeable, no heat, no electricity, no plumbing…and only lasting 7 days. What?

Simple structures, complex and rich with meaning can still be irresistible to designers.

A recent national design competition, “Sukkah PDX (Portland, OR), Ancient Tradition Contemporary Design” was sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum, under the enthusiastic direction of Judith Margles, calling for designs for a contemporary sukkah (sue-kah) – a temporary dwelling, traditionally erected each fall in observance of the harvest, the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The holiday of Sukkot is particularly evocative of the season as the sukkah’s open roof is decorated with plant materials, fruits, and boughs of pine or cedar, creating an aromatic sense memory for children and adults alike.

Sukkot, for a designer, marks a cyclical return to elemental design, linking an intentionally impermanent form of habitation to nature, the lunar calendar and harvest season. It’s a challenge that is constantly renewed, founded in tradition yet it’s meaning dynamic in relation to contemporary society.

Architects Louis Kahn and Stanley Tigerman tried their hand at interpretation. Daniel Libeskind’s glass courtyard at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, though permanent, shows the influence of the sukkah concept.

Jewish law provides very detailed parameters on size and materials for the sukkah, yet doesn’t impose a fixed notion of design. There must be a minimum of two full and one partial wall. Walls need not touch the ground but must not allow a goat to slip under and disrupt the holiday celebration! The roof must be covered with loose plantings and natural materials, but be open to the stars and rain. The structure provides space for people to gather, celebrate, eat, sleep, and is taken down after 7 days.


A quickly formed alliance between myself and two West Coast colleagues, Bruce Rips and Carol Stampfer, entailed some months of phone calls, e-mails, and sketches – we were chosen as one of six winning teams to construct our designs in the parking lot adjacent to the Oregon Jewish Museum. All preparation aside, construction had to be implemented, start to finish, within eight hours on a Sunday afternoon prior to a reception.

After many iterations, we landed on a lightweight parabolic footprint anchored by two heavy columns at either end. Our design, the Willow Sukkah, was dubbed variously (and affectionately) as an elegant carport, a Kon-Tiki sukkah, and a woolly mammoth–in design, better to have multiple allusions than be a “one-liner”.


M2_ Roof detail sketches

Roof detail sketches

My being on the East Coast, spared me the travails of locating and gathering materials for construction.

Bruce and Carol told me their saga of the curly willow for the walls. Did you know that curly willow is sought after by florists all over and that the largest exporter in the world is somewhere out in the hinterlands of Oregon? I did not.

After a circuitous, mostly fruitless search and encounters with a series of quirky strangers worthy of “Northern Exposure”, their path led to the outpost of a Japanese man whose command of English was limited. He had just lost thousands of dollars worth of willow. The temperature control of his storage facility had failed and all the willow was ‘burned’, useless to him. Long story short, my colleagues lugged home thousands of dollars worth of free curly willow branches from the generous World’s Largest Exporter of Curly Willow.


Materials checklist: Willow branches, basalt rocks, fresh plant coverings,
bamboo, rope, cherry tree trunks…
Photos & montage: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

Our primary materials included willow as a reference to the willow corrals of Oregon ranch lands and rock cribs (gabions) chosen similarly. Lesson learned: the rocks sure looked good in the drawing but think about transporting, lifting and climbing a step ladder to drop heavy chunks of native basalt into the wire cages of the gabions. Needless to say, we made some field adjustments. We also had a team of able and creative helpers without whom the allotted eight-hour construction period would have been easily blown. The other main material (for the roof) was bamboo – strong, light, ubiquitous though not especially cheap. A You-tube video provided a particularly handy Japanese square lashing system for the bamboo connections – no hardware required.

M4_Wild roof

Wild roof covering
Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

In our design statement we talked about the Willow Sukkah’s dichotomous meanings, ‘grounded and soaring, inside and outside, impermanence and solidity…a metaphorical shelter for our aspirations, memories and felt experiences, deepening our connection to this multi-layered holiday.’ Our compatriot designers in the parking lot came from different faiths and locales – California, Oregon, Washington, and New York. I flew out from Philadelphia, a first ever visit to Portland.


View of Portland and Mt. St. Helens
Photo: Joseph G. Brin © 2012

Sukkah structures are, as per tradition, temporary. Enduring, however, is our commitment to generating shelter with limited resources and unlimited resourcefulness, lifting spirits and directly connecting us to the rhythms of nature.

A bright, full moon rose over the assortment of sukkahs in the parking lot in Portland that evening, synchronizing perfectly with our celebration of the harvest of Sukkot. I packed up and flew home the next day.

Joseph G. Brin is an architect, fine artist and writer based in Philadelphia, PA.

Categories: Architecture