[Image: Sukkah City as it could be].
Joshua Foer, co-founder of Atlas Obscura and author of the forthcoming book Moonwalking with Einstein, has put together an awesome design competition called “Sukkah City.”
A sukkah is a temporary architectural structure with Biblical origins; it is “an ephemeral, elemental shelter, erected for one week each fall,” Foer writes, “in which it is customary to share meals, entertain, sleep, and rejoice. Ostensibly the sukkah’s religious function is to commemorate the temporary structures that the Israelites dwelled in during their exodus from Egypt, but it is also about universal ideas of transience and permanence as expressed in architecture.” The modern-day sukkah is thus both nostalgia and reenactment, substitution and performance (to put it in terms explored by the recent book Anachronic Renaissance).
With this historical background, you can imagine that the brief includes some very particular constraints, design limits that should prove oddly exhilarating to anyone willing to take them on:
The basic constraints seem simple: the structure must be temporary, have at least two and a half walls, be big enough to contain a table, and have a roof made of shade-providing organic materials through which one can see the stars. Yet a deep dialogue of historical texts intricately refines and interprets these constraints—arguing, for example, for a 27 x 27 x 38-inch minimum volume; for a maximum height of 30 feet; for walls that cannot sway more than one handbreadth; for a mineral and botanical menagerie of construction materials; and even, in one famous instance, whether it is kosher to adaptively reuse a recently deceased elephant as a wall. (It is.) The paradoxical effect of these constraints is to produce a building that is at once new and old, timely and timeless, mobile and stable, open and enclosed, homey and uncanny, comfortable and critical.
The idea of there being a long-running interpretive tradition associated with this specific but highly abstract architectural structure is amazing to me: an oral tradition, or architectural midrash, spanning centuries, through which even the most basic parameters—and thus the building’s most wild, soaring, and structurally unexpected instantiations, its walls made from dead elephants, its roof a meshed hole through which to spy on stars—can be determined.
More from the brief:
“Sukkah City: New York City” will re-imagine this ancient phenomenon, develop new methods of material practice and parametric design, and propose radical possibilities for traditional design constraints in a contemporary urban site. Twelve finalists will be selected by a panel of celebrated architects, designers, and critics to be constructed in a visionary village in Union Square Park from September 19-21, 2010.
One structure will be chosen by New Yorkers to stand and delight throughout the week-long festival of Sukkot as the Official Sukkah of New York City. The process and results of the competition, along with construction documentation and critical essays, will be published in the forthcoming book Sukkah City: Radically Temporary Architecture for the Next Three Thousand Years.
You must register by July 1, and your design proposal will be due by August 1. I’m a bit biased here, but the jury includes some heavyweights, including Paul Goldberger, Ron Arad, Natalie Jeremijenko, Steven Heller, Maira Kalman, Thom Mayne, Ada Tolle, Thomas de Monchaux (co-coordinator of Sukkah City), and many others. I can’t wait to see what comes in, and I’d strongly encourage all sorts of approaches to this, from sprawling plastic plant forms to blocks of plug-in modularity, from a showerhead that 3D-prints the building below it to DIY assemblages of found materials. The collaged image, above, shows how formally interesting some of this could get.
And anyone is able to join in—as Foer writes, “If you’re an architect, designer, artist, engineer, backyard builder, or just someone with a clever idea, I hope you’ll consider entering.”