When I was in high school and university, I performed better on tests when I studied actively rather than passively; by writing things out, longhand, on a pad of paper the night before, I found my brain would retain facts better than if I’d just read and re-read those same facts in a textbook.
This is why I think Judaism has got it going on compared to Catholicism. While I was forced to memorize things my childhood brain couldn’t possibly grasp (and then recite them at Sunday mass), Jews regularly do things that turn abstract concepts into reality.
When I first learned of the festival of Sukkot and the practice of building a sukkah – a temporary shelter that protects one from the elements – in one’s own backyard, I thought of how wonderful a teaching tool it must be. Taking their meals in this little hut for week, a family will have meaningful conversations about the fragility of life, how they’re grateful to have a house with plumbing and heating and, most important, about the hardships their ancestors endured while wandering the desert.
And when a structure is this meaningful to a people, it’s only natural to want to share it with others. So, in 2011, non-profit housing agency Kehilla hatched Sukkahville, a competition to re-imagine the little religious structure while raising awareness about affordable housing. Based on Sukkah City, a similar competition held in New York City the year before, Sukkahville was a roaring success, despite taking place in a parking lot.
“It started in a very modest way,” laughs Ed Applebaum, 58, a principal at Montgomery Sisam Architects and chair of Sukkahville since its inception.
That first year, architects, artists, designers and students created sukkahs out of wood, wire, milk crates and just about everything else, all while respecting strict laws to keep them kosher. In 2012 and 2013, corporate sponsorships increased and Sukkaville expanded, taking up residence at Mel Lastman Square. Teams arrived from all over the globe to try their hand; the winners in 2013 – non-Jews I might add – came all the way from Cyprus. This year, the competition will take place at Nathan Phillips Square.
“This has been a fully open design competition,” explains Mr. Applebaum. “Most of the applicants have not been Jewish, and most of the applicants that have won have not been Jewish.
“It’s important to prescribe what the rules are, and what the conceptual basis is behind what a sukkah means and the whole notion of creating a primitive hut, but using those laws in a contemporary manner with contemporary materials and with a contemporary form and expression so that it’s exciting and new.”
Briefly, here some of the laws for building a sukkah: Inside must be no smaller than 27 by 27 inches but no larger than 100 square feet; it must be taller than 38 inches but no taller than 30 feet; walls can be made of any material, but must be sturdy enough to withstand an ordinary wind and, finally, the roof structure must be covered with something “that grows from the soil and is completely detached from the ground” that provides more shade than light while inside (at night, one must be able to see the stars).
Sukkahville entrants – this year there were more than 100 – are first judged by a panel of rabbis. Those that survive rabbinical scrutiny are judged next by a “celebrity” panel that chooses eight finalists.
These lucky eight must then take their conceptual work and figure out how to construct it, as all will be put on public display in a little more than a week.
Representing Toronto in 2014 are Ryerson architectural science students Nivin Nabeel, Daniel Bassakyros, and Louise Shin. While Mr. Bassakyros had never heard of a sukkah when approached by Ms. Nabeel in May (after she’d seen a posting), he quickly agreed to join the team.
“It’s good practice – it hones our skills for design, and thinking how things are put together,” he says.
While it took the trio a month to come up with “Cloud & Light,” the real work began once they’d been awarded finalist status. Ms. Nabeel remembers it took a full two weeks just to select the right type of wood to build the structure, and Mr. Bassakyros laughs when he thinks of holding Tyvek samples up to the light to see which would best allow their sukkah’s walls to glow at night.
Managing a team of first-year students enlisted to help construct the sukkah was even more challenging: “It’s a completely different experience than just doing renderings,” says Ms. Nabeel.
Their design, which looks like a tall, stepped skyscraper, has a double layer of Tyvek as its skin; lighting is hidden between the layers to represent “a lantern, a beacon,” explains Mr. Bassakyros, since the Jews were led out of the desert by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night.
To bring that image into the 21st century however, the team considered how today, in big cities, day and night are less distinct: “It’s almost like the city never sleeps,” says Mr. Bassakyros. “Sometimes night is like day, so we made a sukkah that embodies the idea that day and night are one.
“It’s like the sukkah that never sleeps,” he laughs.
Sukkahville 2014 takes place on Oct. 14-15 at Nathan Phillips Square outside Toronto City Hall. Competitors hail from France, the United States, Mexico, Cyprus, Calgary and Toronto. Winners will be announced between noon and 1 p.m. on Oct. 15. Admission is free. To find out more or to donate, visit sukkahville.com