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Sukkahville: In search of the perfect shelter

Next month, Jewish believers and their families and guests will celebrate the ancient festival of Sukkot by dining and entertaining in temporary outdoor structures called sukkahs. These dwellings will do the job assigned to them by sacred tradition if they call to mind the homelessness endured by the Israelites during the 40 years of pilgrimage that followed the exodus from Egypt, and the protection (symbolized by the improvised huts) that God gave his people in the wasteland.

But Nancy Singer, executive director of the Toronto non-profit housing agency known as Kehilla Residential Programme, believes the annual observance bears a message for all people of good will, Jews and gentiles alike.

“Sukkot means the importance of shelter,” Ms. Singer says. “It’s about vulnerability, people living underhoused or living on the street – dislocation, estrangement, wandering in the desert and the need to create a sense of home. Sukkot couldn’t be a more perfect match with what we do.” (Kehilla administers hundreds of units of affordable and supportive housing across the city, most of them occupied by clients funnelled into the organization by Jewish community groups.)

The competition attracted international entries, including Italian Gianluca Pelizza’s Desert Veil, a wood-framed cube roofed with olive branches.

Inspired by a display of festive sukkahs in New York in 2010, Singer and friends launched the first edition of Toronto’s Sukkahville the following year. It was to be an international design competition for the perfect sukkah, and the imaginative centrepiece of Kehilla’s Sukkot-time campaign to garner funds for its work and bolster public awareness of the need for affordable shelter.

In the estimation of its organizers, the initial Sukkahville worked resoundingly well; and thus began what’s become an annual city tradition. Sukkahs crafted by the eight finalists in this year’s juried contest, and a few more by past winners, go up at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square on Sept. 24. The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on the plaza the next day, and the sukkahs will be on public view until Sunday, Sept. 27, when, at sundown, the week-long celebration of Sukkot begins.

If the structures themselves will be light on the ground – up, judged and gone in just four days – the process of choosing the designs has been notably heavyweight.

Heading the jury is the well-known architect, planner and author Ken Greenberg. Other judges are Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto’s chief planner; Shauna Levy, of the Design Exchange; Alex Bozikovic, architecture critic of The Globe and Mail; and Plant Architect’s Christopher Pommer, who co-created the outstanding original scheme for the overhaul of Nathan Phillips Square. A panel of three rabbis vetted each submission to determine its religious orthodoxy. Every contestant who made the final cut received a $3,600 stipend – Sukkahville’s 2015 budget is around $46,000 – and, in an outcome that’s easily more valuable than the stipend, his or her plan got the scrutiny and criticism of that high-powered jury.

As their proposals suggest – you can see them all at www.sukkahville.com – some of this year’s Canadian, American and European finalists interpreted the rules of the competition cautiously, while others have let their fancy roam far beyond the conventional.

Swedish artist Ulf Merjergren crafted a poetic sukkah, depicting an unearthed root system.

Italian designer Gianluca Pelizza’s conservative Desert Veil, for example, will be a wood-framed cube clad in an open-worked skin of clay and roofed with olive branches. According to the rabbis, a sukkah must give protection from the elements, but must also be porous enough for people inside to see the stars. Mr. Pelizza’s project, the earth and wood elements of which are meant to recall “desert, nomadism and transience,” meets the religious requirements with plain elegance.

For an entry that isn’t elegant, but that has a certain rough charm, visitors should check out the sukkah called Roots, by Swedish artist Ulf Merjergren. This exuberantly rumpled shelter will be composed of heavy straw ropes, twisted together into what looks like the unearthed root system of a large tree. It is intended to be, Mr. Merjergren has written, “a poetic reflection of the history of the Jews, where both turmoil and unity have been present, and where the search for roots [has] been of great importance.”

To one degree or another, each of the plans is a thoughtful, enthusiastic response to the challenge set before contestants by the Kehilla agency. All Torontonians can look forward to an interesting and perhaps provocative September weekend down at Nathan Phillips Square, as they take in the showcase of sacred symbolism and architectural imagination that is Sukkahville 2015.

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