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DETROIT — For centuries, Christian holidays have been the undisputed champions of temporary outdoor decorative displays in the United States, with traditions ranging from the tasteful to the garish. But this week marks the beginning of the Jewish harvest festival period of Sukkot, which celebrates the completion of an intensive High Holy day period that touches off in mid-summer. Detroit’s Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue decided to get in the holiday spirit with Sukkah + Detroit. And since the age-old Jewish celebration of life and bounty happens to coincide with this year’s Detroit Design Festival and Month of Design, the sukkahs on display for the week in nearby Capitol Park are a lot more innovative and tasteful than your neighbor’s 14-foot Santa Claus inflatable.
The competition was modeled after New York’s 2010 Sukkah City, which similarly attracted a host of international competitors looking to grab one of five opportunities to be produced and put on display. Sukkah + Detroit received 78 applications from 14 countries, and a seven-member jury of Detroit-based architects and designers selected the five winners, who each received $15,000 to implement their designs. Each design riffs on the ancient traditions of Sukkot, which dictates that the observant build a small, temporary structure, open to the sky so that stars might be seen at night but also shaded from direct sunlight by leafy boughs called s’chach. Folks are supposed to sleep, eat, and receive company in their sukkah throughout the harvest festival period. The synagogue also specified that the proposals integrate a focus on Detroit’s thriving urban farming population, melding ancient ideas of harvest with these contemporary practices.
The five winners presented a range of visual aesthetics and materials, with each offering a different sukkah experience. Abre Etteh of New Malden, Britain, UK chose to evoke an overhanging tree via a cluster of hanging shingles inside his sukkah. From the outside, one can see that the simple plywood of the structure has been elaborately cut to allow light to filter into the space. Visitors are invited to choose a shingle upon which to write a message of thanks, or gather around a small pool in a hammered metal vessel that sits central on the natural fiber mats that make up the floor. The fetching blue and clean lines would make this sukkah a comfortable, temporary addition outside the home of any observant Dwell magazine subscribers.
For those who like to run a bit more wild, Nice One Projects of Cambridge, MA, presents an ovoid structure bristling on all sides with thatch bundles like a sukkah anemone. Though shaggy on the outside, the interior feels surprisingly tidy and intimate, and of all the designs, this one achieves some of the best interaction with the surrounding skyscrapers, with sight lines straight through the walls and the ceiling, barred only with bare bamboo canes. In their artist statement, Nice One acknowledges the inherent paradox of the sukkah as both a functionally protective and temporary construction, and their design very ably balances the tangible nature and impermanence of the structure itself, and evokes its underlying spiritual purpose.
It feels inevitable that at least one sukkah would showcase some kind of up-cycled material and focus on sustainable construction practices, and this roster spot is taken by Gamma Architects, Paul Passano of Gibraltar, Gibraltar. But for the bare-bamboo ceiling, the structure is made entirely of stackable white vegetable crates — the most literal nod to actual, contemporary agricultural practice — which also make up the temporary furniture inside: seating and a table around which to share food in the festal tradition. Though the artist statement indicates a great deal of thought put into the materials and their application, the overall aesthetics are somewhat desultory, and one struggles to see where the materials budget went. Though arguably the most functional sukkah and a design that would be fruitfully adapted to, say, a ticket kiosk for an outdoor music festival, it feels a little clinical for a celebration venue.
But perhaps it suffers from being just adjacent to the sukkah by Noah Ives of Portland, OR, a delightful construction of laser-cut support beams and wooden scales that resembles a giant, hollow artichoke. The hive-shaped dome is cleverly slotted to enable the passage of light without revealing the structure’s interior, except through the doorway. No doubt, Talmudic scholars could argue a day away about whether the telescoping scales properly qualify as s’chach, but the night sky should be at least a bit visible through a star-shaped opening at the peak of the structure.
Finally, the competition’s sole hometown winner, JE-LE, an architectural design and research office led by Michael Jefferson and Suzanne Lettieri presents an interpretation of the sukkah that seems to direct attention outward, rather than form an interior gathering point. Divided by several layers of colorful mesh, this sukkah is divided into “pocket spaces” and is, according to their artist statement, “inspired by an aspiration to celebrate the aesthetic value of the fruit harvest and takes cues from its vibrancy, its fine scale aggregation, and its holistic sculptural affects.” Whether or not this sukkah evokes an immediate association with fruit, this writer was gratified, at least, to find one sukkah amenable to the needs of the Sukkot introvert.
Overall, Sukkah + Detroit has made a terrific first effort, and one hopes the tradition will carry on in years to come, offering the Detroit Jewish community an opportunity to be judgmental about holiday decoration within their own congregation — “Did you see Leor still has his sukkah up? Oy, it’s almost Hannukah!”
The winning designs from Sukkah + Detroit will remain on display in Capitol Park (State Street and Griswold Street, Detroit, MI) through Sept. 30, with an exhibition of all the design submissions on display at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue (1457 Griswold, Detroit, MI) through October 2.