Titled Neshama, the Hebrew word that means both “soul” and “breath,” the design for this contemporary interpretation of a sukkah, the structure used to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, is informed by the specific events of our time: a global pandemic, refugee and immigration crises, climate disasters, and a reckoning on racial relations. The project team sought to explore the daily complexities we face through a structure that embraces these contradictions as an organic, living entity. The sukkah, which dates to biblical times, was a temporary hut built by farmers and placed in the fields during the fall harvest. Today, these festival booths serve as a reminder of the holiday’s agrarian roots and continue a core principle of the Judaic tradition—“welcoming the stranger”—in which an empty place at the table is always left vacant to welcome a wanderer.
The structure’s form is a circle and measures eight-and-half-feet tall by 10-feet in diameter. It features a steel pipe frame that support 54 fabric panels, each measuring 7-inches wide by 100-inches tall; 54 is a module of 18, a number in the Jewish tradition whose letters numerically equate to the Hebrew word “chai” which translates to “alive” or “life.” The fabric strips are fastened at the top but connected to a rotating wheel at the bottom that can be turned by guests. Like the expanding pleats on the face coverings worn during the COVID-19 pandemic, this twisting action opens the perimeter of the sukkah and recalls the act of inhaling and exhaling.
This idea is furthered through the addition of color. The exterior surface of the fabric panels is white, while the interior face of the individual panels is tinted, some in blue and some in green to create an overall gradient effect. The color scheme grounds the sukkah structure between earth and sky and is partially revealed to the exterior through the twisting motion, which creates a dancing and colorful skin.
The reference to Nature can be seen throughout the design, from the use of natural materials—the fabric panels and an open lattice ceiling covering made from cotton string—to the play of light and shadow in and around the sukkah. Interior elements, a 30-inch-diameter plywood table and a woven hemp rug, continue the project’s circular motifs.
Part abstract representation, part kinetic art installation, Neshama aims to recall the form of the sukkah and traditions of Sukkot by creating a structure that speaks to universal themes. Particularly as we attempt to reconcile the concept of “open vs. closed” and what it means to shield and protect at the same time we are trying to create a more inclusive society and sense of community, the sukkah is a first step toward creating a place of welcome that can host and be shared by all people, cultures, and religions.
Copyright SmithGroup, 2021
Location: National Building Museum
401 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20004