New Yorkers and those visiting the city that passed through Union Square earlier this week probably noticed a collection of odd, avant-garde structures assembled around the south end of the park. No, Lady Gaga and her entourage didn’t decide to erect a tent village — or as New York Magazine puts it, "a camp for design-conscious refugees."
The structures were the 12 finalists in Sukkah City, an international sustainable design competition with a unique biblical twist. Organized by Jewish nonprofit group Reebot and partnered with Dwell, Core77, Architizer, and others, the competition invited designers to re-imagine the traditional sukkah, a temporary, tent-like structure used by the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt 3,000 years ago. The Sukkah City website elaborates on the importance of these “holy huts:”
The sukkah is a means of ceremonially practicing homelessness, while at the same time remaining deeply rooted. It calls on us to acknowledge the changing of the seasons, to reconnect with an agricultural past, and to take a moment to dwell on--and dwell in--impermanence.
Here’s the thing: the designers — there were 600 submitted from 43 countries in total — couldn't just build a temporary shelter out of a bunch of random materials and have a rabbi bless it to qualify; they had to adhere to an arcane set of kosher building constraints to be considered in the competition:
1. A whale may be used to make a sukkah's walls. Also a living elephant.
2. The sukkah must enclose a minimum area of at least 7 x 7 square handbreadths.
3. A sukkah may be built on top of a camel.
4. If the sukkah has only 2 complete walls, and they face each other, a third wall of at least 4 handbreadths must be within 3 handbreadths of one of the complete walls.
5. The roof cannot be made of bundles of straw or sticks that are tied together (although untied straw or sticks may be okay).
6. The roof cannot be made of utensils, or anything conventionally functional when it is not part of a sukkah.
7. There is no maximum area, except in NYC where any structure larger than 19 x 8 feet is not considered temporary by the DOB.
8. The roof cannot be made of food.
9. The sukkah must have at least 3 walls, but the third doesn't need to be complete. The walls must remain unshaken by a steady wind.
10 At night, one must be able to see the stars from within the sukkah, through the roof.
11. The sukkah must have a roof made of schach: the leaves and/or branches of a tree or plant.
12. If there are only 2 complete walls, and they form a corner, a third wall of at least 1 handbreadth must be within 3 handbreadths of one of the complete walls.
13. A sukkah may be built on a boat.
14. A sukkah may be built on a wagon.
15. A sukkah may be built in a tree, like a treehouse. But it cannot be built under a tree, or any overhanging surface.
16. In day, the roof must provide more shade than sunshine. Its individual construction elements must be less than 4 handbreadths in width.
17. The sukkah must draw the eye up to its roof, and to the sky beyond.
18. The roof must be made from something that once grew in the ground, and is no longer attached to the earth.
19. The sukkah must be at least 10 handbreadths tall, but no taller than 20 cubits
20. The base of the walls must be within 3 handbreadths of the ground, but need not reach the roof.
All 12 of the sukkah finalist were on display for two days earlier this week — no, no camels or elephants were involved — but only one, the “People’s Choice Sukkah", was left on display for the entire run of Sukkot, a week-long, harvest-themed Jewish holiday. Although Repetition Meets Difference from famed German designer Matthias Karch got a lot of play, the public chose Fractured Bubble, (pictured below with rendering) a spherical explosion of plywood, marsh grass, and twine designed by Queens-based architects Henry Grosman and Babek Bryan. 
Explain the designers: "The sukkah is a bubble: ephemeral and transient. It separates inside from outside with a thin, permeable membrane. Outside is the world of everyday life. Inside one gathers with loved ones. Together you look out to the world to find it fresh again, transformed."
My personal favorite, pictured below, is Sukkah of the Signs by Oakland’s Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello. The design, a wooden stucture clad with over 300 cardboard signs actually used by homeless people in the Bay Area and purchased over the years by the designers, really took the nomadic theme to heart. Read the fascinating story behind the design here
Head on over to the Sukkah City website to view the winning 12 “radically temporary structures” along with all of the 600 entrants. Also check out NY Magazine's insightful observations on the finalists. Is there a certain sukkah that catches your eye? And have you ever dreamed of owning your own private sukkah? I guess some folks do because the winning designs are being auctioned off to benefit my favorite NYC charity, Housing Works. Forget backyard camping, backyard sukkah-ing is where it's at. 
All photos: Flickr user barakz except for Fractured Bubble photos by Matt. Renderings: Henry Grosman/Babek Bryan (Fractured Bubble); Repetition Meets Difference, Matthias Karch.


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