Taking a New Look at Old Testament Architecture

Each year as summer gives way to chill, the Jewish faithful erect sukkahs, or temporary outdoor structures in which to eat meals. At first glance, the rules dictating the sukkah seem arcane to the point of amusement: for example, the roof cannot be made of utensils or anything conventionally functional; the roof cannot be made of food; during the day, one must have more shade than sunshine; at night one must be able to see the stars through the roof; and the sukkah must be at least ten handbreadths tall. Oh, and a whale may be used to make the sukkah’s walls.

But understand the structure’s spiritual purpose and you begin to see those stipulations as the poetic intersection of function and discomfort. “The sukkah is a space to ceremonially practice homelessness,” says Joshua Foer, who worked with Reboot to organize Sukkah City, a competition to install 12 of the structures in New York’s Union Square this September (register by July 1). “In that sense it is an architecture of both memory and empathy— memory of the huts the Israelites dwelled in during their exodus from Egypt long ago, and empathy for those who live today without solid shelter over their heads. It goes up in the fall, just when it’s no longer entirely comfortable to be outside.”

So why arrange a design competition? “The sukkah is such an evocative and deeply resonant structure,” Foer says. “It is the original architectural pavilion. I hope that in reconsidering this ancient structure, this contest can push the larger conversations about design forward.”

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