Imaginations soar at Sukkah City x DC

“Thank U, Nest,” by a complete unknown
Photo by Ron Sachs/CNP

Photos by Ron Sachs/CNP

One sukkah branches skyward, like a tree, and 60 birdhouses offer seed to the District’s winged creatures. Another sukkah whispers to the spirit and soul, its walls made from fabric strips that waft in the wind while a multihued string mandala of a Jewish star is open to the sky. A third sukkah features vertically stacked wood pallets towering two stories, like a turret. After entering the claustrophobic anteroom, a visitor turns into the double height main room, soaring heavenward.

These three sukkot — temporary outdoor living spaces — now stand on the west lawn of the National Building Museum in the District, and form part of a collection of seven creatively re-imagined huts, which play a central role in the holiday of Sukkot. While it is observed as the fall harvest celebration, the ancient holiday, with its commandment to build a temporary structure to congregate, eat, sleep, study and rejoice, also recalls the biblical Israelites’ 40-year sojourn in the desert, wandering, setting down camp, then packing up and moving on once more.

The Capital Jewish Museum initiated the collaboration with the National Building Museum to create Sukkah City x DC as a means to reimagine the holiday practices for contemporary times and issues. In that process, concepts of immigration, displacement and homelessness have brought additional depth to Sukkot observances. An architecture design brief, written with the halachic standards for a traditional sukkah, was sent out to architectural firms around the Washington region, as well as beyond, explained Capital Jewish Museum Executive Director Kara Blond, who noted that a similar project in New York provided inspiration.

With the still-under-construction Capital Jewish Museum just down the block, the National Building Museum proved to be the perfect partner. “The National Building Museum deals with architecture and the built environment,” noted Blond, “and we wanted a creative take on Sukkot.”

From Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Rabbi Aaron Potek and Rabbi Nora Feinstein served as advisers on particulars of observance and rules on building a sukkah. The sukkot went up the day after Yom Kippur, as is traditional in the Jewish holiday cycle, which exhorts us not to delay putting up a temporary structure, or at least the first beam.

“Neshama” is the name of the SmithGroup’s sukkah, and with its team of 18 architects and designers from the Northwest Washington-based firm, it comes as no surprise to note the thought and precision of every choice the group made for the temporary circular structure. SmithGroup, too, designed the Capital Jewish Museum among other prominent museum buildings in the District and beyond.

Vienna, Va., resident David Fersh of SmithGroup recalled building a backyard sukkah with his family as a child, so he was excited to see the design brief for the project. He noted that the team took liberties with halachah — Jewish law — by choosing a circular structure rather than a box-like design with a minimum of three flat walls.

“We took Jewish law and used it differently,” he said. “One important thing is that one side had to be open and welcoming to people. Another idea we worked with was the concept of breath and soul.”

Thus the name “neshama,” from the Hebrew, which means both breath and soul. Peter He of Arlington, another design partner on the SmithGroup project, was not familiar with Sukkot and the temporary sukkah structure before this summer. Yet he quickly caught on, explaining, “We looked at the theme of welcoming strangers and wanted to take the traditional sukkah and find the abstract quality of it, and deal with transparency, light and shadow. We also wanted to help people find a space to meditate and connect to their own breathing.”

With panels of fabric in pale seafoam blues and greens, which will be lit from the inside at night, Fersh and He both hope the space will prove calming to visitors, both inside and out.

This was District architect Max Drapey’s first time involved in building a sukkah, although he grew up learning about the Sukkot holiday in Hebrew school. The nonprofit firm where he works, called “a complete unknown,” headed by Suman Sorg, found Sukkah City x DC aligned with its mission to give back to the community.

The result from Drapey, Song and the “a complete unknown” team is “Thank U, Nest,” a massive tree-like structure with 100 birdhouses attached to the branches.

“While the idea of Sukkot is to think about how the temporary structure brings people together,” Drapey said, “we also wanted to think about how the temporary structure brings avian friends into the mix as well. The city is not the best environment for birds. This creates a sanctuary and safe space for people to come in and it also offers a haven for birds.“We are trying to bring a spirit to the community of more awareness of the environment,” Drapey added.

Three additional sukkot stand on the National Building Museum grounds. Shinberg.Levinas’s “Do-undo” features puzzle-like pieces that can be taken apart and reused.

Knu Design and Cedar Architecture’s “(Re)Orienting the Pallet (Palate / Palette)” offers a disorienting, claustrophobic space before opening into a large great room.

And hord | coplan | macht’s “Woven” unfolds like origami. Made from bamboo, palm and ropes, it resembles a peaked tent. Two more sukkot — Esocoff & Ng Architects’ “Minyan” with its 10 tall chairs and oculus roof, and A. Robert Zweig’s “Sukkah,” are at the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center in Northwest Washington.

Zweig’s construction invites visitors to bring and leave or take a pair of shoes, offering the wanderer a necessary item for his or her journey. The stacked shoes creating an evolving textured quilt of the walls. Already the Edlavitch DCJCC has collected more than six dozen pairs of shoes.

The Capital Jewish Museum’s Blond reflects again on the larger themes of the Sukkot holiday and Sukkah City x DC’s mission, “Sukkot is about welcoming the stranger, connecting to those we don’t know and the impermanence and transience of life.”

These creatively built structures are just here for a little more than a week, so visit soon.

Sukkah City x DC, on display at the National Building Museum West Lawn, 401 F St. NW (Red Line Judiciary Square) and Edlavitch DCJCC, 1529 16th St. NW
(Red Line Dupont Circle), through Oct. 3.  For information, visit

Corrected Sept. 24, 2021, 10:25 a.m. The story now reflects Suman Sorg’s correct surname.

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