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The Whole Spiel

The History of Sukkah City

by Sara Miller, Communications Intern
August 30, 2021

This holiday season, we hope you will join us for Sukkah City x DC (September 18─October 3, 2021), an installation of whimsical and creatives sukkahs designed by notable architects from the region. Inspired by the theme ‘welcoming the stranger,’ the sukkah designs explore contemporary challenges while celebrating the traditions of Sukkot. Every fall, as the air grows cooler and the leaves change color, members of the Jewish community set up sukkahs in an open space or backyard. These three-walled huts with roofs open to the stars reflect on the time when the Jewish people escaped from Egypt and built temporary huts.

Long after the Exodus, Jews commemorate this time by setting up temporary shelters to reimagine the flight and simultaneously celebrate the autumnal harvest. Sukkot reminds the Jewish people both of the hardships they once faced and of those who do not have roofs over their heads. Long part of a cultural tradition, sukkahs were reimagined as thought-provoking architectural pieces with the event Sukkah City.

Organized in 2010 in New York City, Sukkah City featured works made out of a wide array of materials. A competition called for unique designs that were free to explore unusual materials and themes. Yet, there were certain constraints to the design, mainly that the roof had to be made of non-edible plant material, enclosed on three sides with a view of the night sky and enough shade for the sun, and fit at least two adults and a table for eating a meal. The sukkah serves as a “multivalent symbol”, according to New York Magazine, with some structures expressing “empathy for the homeless,” while others were “outpost[s] of antiquity” in the modern world.

Out of 600 entries from both artists and architectural firms, 12 original and daring designs were chosen. Over just two days, September 19-20, the sukkahs were presented in Union Square, a bustling city park and transit hub with a history of progressive actions, from the first Labor Day parade in 1882 to the first Earth Day in 1970.  According to New York Magazine, the most successful entries played on the “childlike desire to duck inside a mini-structure in search of fantasy.” The “peoples’ award” sukkah, “Fractured Bubble,” looked like a giant tumbleweed. Made of plywood, marsh grass, and twine, it was meant to separate the interior from the exterior world like a “thin, impermeable membrane,” according to Flavorwire’s review describing the winning design. In comparison, “Blo Puff” was a soft and pillow-like refuge from the city, with Spanish moss hanging from the ceiling and the smell of eucalyptus wafting in the air.

Sukkah City was an opportunity to engage both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences in the traditions of Sukkot. Visitors were encouraged to “wander through, learn about the holiday and appreciate the artistry of the structures,” according to an Atlantic article. It also is one of the few times that “Jewish liturgy has an architectural expression,” according to architecture critic Paul Goldberg. At the end of the weekend, Fractured Bubble–winner of the ‘people’s choice’ award–stayed in Union Square until October 2, while the others were displayed in the Center for Architecture throughout September. All 12 sukkahs were auctioned off to raise proceeds for homeless initiatives in NYC.

Finally, Sukkah City is coming to DC, eleven years later and after additional presentations in Detroit and St. Louis. With the second largest Jewish community in the United States and a history of political action, Washington, DC is an ideal setting for Sukkah City. The Capital Jewish Museum has partnered with the National Building Museum in collaboration with the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center (EDCJCC) to commission several sukkahs that address the theme of ‘welcoming the stranger.’ Five sukkahs will be displayed on the National Building Museum’s West Lawn and two on the EDCJCC campus from Saturday, September 18 through Sunday, October 3.

#SukkahCityDC @CapJewishMuseum  @E_DCJCC  @NationalBuildingMuseum

Related Links:
Sukkah City x DC | Capital Jewish Museum