Nationwide, the Sukkot holiday and the sukkah building type are undergoing something of a renaissance. Just as tent imagery captured the imagination of Jews building suburban synagogues in the 1960s, reflecting their continuing exodus from the “old neighborhoods,” so the simple form, temporary nature, and domestic setting of the humble sukkah strikes a sympathetic chord in the today’s enviro-friendly moment. The modest domestic and social rituals of Sukkot are especially appealing after the solemnity of the Days of Awe. The transition is a natural one: on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, synagogue-goers read of Jonah sitting in his sukkah overlooking Nineveh, and tradition calls for construction of the sukkah to begin the day after Yom Kippur.
A group of undergraduate architecture students at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, followed that tradition when they rebuilt the WesSukkah this week. (The sukkah was originally erected in the spring, when it won Faith and Form Magazine’s prestigious Sacred Landscape Award.) The sukkah was envisioned as something that could operate on both interpretive and physical levels. It had to satisfy a set of halakhic requirements, but it also had to interest and excite a young audience. The result is an undulating structure of five archways of skeletal-steel framing covered in bamboo mats, through which light penetrates to provide the needed view of the sky and stars—just one of several stipulations laid down in the Mishna and Talmud regarding the building of a sukkah.
The contemporary sukkah is that rare construction that is symbolic in both form and function. It represents the huts of the Israelites during their wandering in the Sinai desert, but its annual erection in a domestic setting stands in for the Temple-period pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Even in Temple times, the booths built by pilgrims were tamed; they were built in celebration, not in hardship. Now, in the age of build-your-own-sukkah kits, the sukkah has been further domesticated. The WesSukkah harks back to a simpler time before standardized parts and pre-fab designs The students were inspired by the centuries-old search for the source of architecture in the primitive hut, and they considered how early civilizations linked buildings to astronomy.
The shape of the WesSukkah reflects its hillside site, and the path of the sun across the sky, but as Gideon Finck, a Wesleyan junior and one of the students who worked on the sukkah, pointed out, “the sukkah also shares the site with Wesleyan’s observatory, which has two domed observation spaces. One of the most famous rules of sukkah-design is that the occupant must be able to see the stars through the s’chach, so we thought it fitting that our design incorporate this thematic connection between the sukkah and the domed observatory.”
The WesSukkah is not what its clients, local Jewish community leaders, first envisioned. They had hoped for a sukkah that was traditional, recognizable, and could be reassembled every year. Instead the students challenged the concept of the “booth” and rejected entirely the architectural rigidity of a box. The arched undulating tunnel-like structure is more organic; it gently rises from the earth rather than imposing itself upon it. It has sculptural presence, recalling works of Robert Stackhouse and Martin Puryear, but is also suggests the designs of American Indians—from the longhouse to the eel-pot. The uneven sukkah arches link Judaism’s two most ancient forms of temporary (and nomadic) architecture: the tent and the tabernacle. The tent is the favored form of Genesis, a time of Patriarchs and family units, while the Sukkah is emblematic of the Israelite people attaining nationhood; it is the Biblical architecture of community.
“We wanted to find a balance between being inviting and being intimate,” said Finck, “and a simple ‘tunnel’ model seemed to indicate that the sukkah was just that—a way to get from one point to another.”
When I was in college in the 1970s Sukkot was a politicized holiday that signaled hopes for an “incoming of nations,” and assembly at Jerusalem, and was linked to the plight and yearnings of Soviet Jewry. Today, Americans are transforming the holiday in ways that connect the sukkah not only to Jerusalem, but to more immediate localities. The students believe they have contributed to the Jewish presence and the Jewish community at Wesleyan, and have also created a more universal space linked to multiple traditions.
Elijah Huge, the architecture professor who oversaw the students’ work, is anticipating that it will continue to be reused year after year. “It was designed as a kit that is relatively easy to assemble and disassemble,” he said. “It would be great to have new decorations each year, but the structure itself will hopefully have some longevity.”