The unconventional family outings of architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello with their 11-month-old son took them to blighted California neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Oakland and San Francisco. There they purchased signs from homeless people for $2 to $3 apiece.
With those signs in mind, they decided to enter Reboot’s Sukkah City design competition — with a proposal to build a sukkah covered in cardboard signs. They saw the contest as a chance to make a statement about homelessness in honor of Sukkot, the fall holiday when Jews celebrate the autumn harvest and build temporary shelters.
As it turns out, their “Sukkah of the Signs” was one of 12 designs chosen — from among more than 600 entries — to be displayed in New York’s Union Square. Those selections were on view September 19 and 20 in the downtown park.
“This sukkah is about wandering, about hunger; all the same words that are on the signs, from ‘God Bless’ to ‘Hungry’ to ‘Traveling,’ these are all the same kinds of conversations that maybe [Jews] had during Exodus,” Rael told the Forward as he watched, on September 19, as thousands of passersby pored over the messages that cover the exterior of the ritual hut.
A far cry from the wood sheeting and evergreen branches that make up more conventional sukkahs, the Sukkah City finalists included Kyle May and Scott Abrahams’s “Log,” made of a large cedar log supported by glass walls; Matter Practice’s “Single Thread,” constructed from a single spool of metal wire, and Matthias Karch’s “Repetition Meets Difference,” built out of a tangle of wood, inspired by the “universal knot” invented by German-Jewish engineer Konrad Wachsmann.
A few feet away stood what looked like porcupine quills emerging from a giant cracked walnut, but it was actually Babak Bryan and Henry Grosman’s sukkah: a circular plywood design with marsh grass protruding from all sides.
Called “Fractured Bubble,” that design was chosen as the contest winner by New York magazine readers and Sukkah City visitors, and will remain in Union Square through October 2.
Friends Joanie Johnson and Jennifer Eisenberg stumbled onto the event September 19, while strolling through Union Square.
“An event like this makes Judaism more accessible,” Johnson said. “That way, it’s not just Jews building crazy structures in their backyard; people will actually know there is a reason for it.”
Eisenberg added that in a religion so steeped in tradition, “it’s nice to see something so nontraditional.”
Sukkah City was the brainchild of writer Joshua Foer and Roger Bennett, a founder of the Reboot network, which organizes Jewish artistic and cultural initiatives.
“Now that we have elevated the sukkah to something that designers consider interesting… hopefully we can get architects designing these things in cities all over the world,” Foer said.
A panel of judges — among them, Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Paul Goldberger and famed Israeli architect Ron Arad — chose 12 finalists from among the submissions. Entries arrived from 43 countries, including Kazakhstan, Thailand and Venezuela.
Following the two-day outdoor exhibition, one of the sukkahs is going on display at the JCC in Manhattan and two Sukkah City designs, “Star Cocoon” and “In Tension,” will be on display at the Yeshiva University Museum throughout the holiday of Sukkot, which ends on September 29.
Marc Halpert traveled to New York from Fairfield, Conn., for the sole purpose of visiting Sukkah City. “This is an only in New York thing,” he said. “It’s so intensely Jewish, and all cultures can partake in it, which is exactly the melting pot concept.”
While the sukkahs were up in Union Square, crowds lingered in front of “Sukkah of the Signs” — reading all the messages on the cardboard signs. On the afternoon of September 19, there was a homeless man sleeping on the ground just a few feet away from Rael and San Fratello’s design. Eager to reach that sukkah and join the conversation about homelessness, a steady stream of visitors stepped over the sleeping man’s feet.
Contact Maia Efrem at email@example.com