Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Original Intent

A student sukkah project harks back to architecture’s dawn

Print Email
(Gideon Finck)

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.”

WesSukkah, exterior

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.”

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Original Intent

A student sukkah project harks back to architecture’s dawn

More on Tablet:

The Kindergarten Teacher Who Won Cannes

By Vladislav Davidzon — Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig stars in Auschwitz drama Son of Saul