Here was the chance to “build a sukkah for the pope” thought Henry Grossman and Babak Bryan of NYC’s BanG Studio, when they received the request to design a sukkah for Georgetown University.
But for Rabbi Rachel Gartner, director of Jewish chaplaincy for the university, it was about using the sukkah to demonstrate to both Jewish and non-Jewish students that “Judaism is alive and vibrant, like the natural materials of the sukkah.” As she explained, “it [the sukkah] is innovative and yet, at the same time, remains traditional.”
Grossman and Bryan were the team behind the “People’s Choice” award-winning design from the 2010 Sukkah City competition. While they jokingly credit their mothers as the reason they received the popular vote, their avante-garde temporary booth built for Sukkot called to mind a grassy coconut split open.
“Our sukkah, like Judaism itself weaves together the wisdom of the ages with the energy and vision of youth,” said Gartner. And, in keeping with Georgetown’s mission of interreligious dialogue, she wanted a design that was very visible and allowed others to look in and learn from the traditions.
The architects liked the idea that this sukkah, while a piece of ritual, would “stand in larger dialogue. Not just a question of Judaic culture or modern culture but would engage in a larger dialogue. It seemed like something we wanted to be a part of,” said Bryan.
This was the third sukkah the team would design. But what would make this sukkah different from its Sukkah City counterpart and the second one commissioned by a congregation in Brooklyn?
“The first one was the first one. What is the sukkah? How does it perform?” Bryan explained. “With the second we asked ‘how is it used?’ ”
Additionally, the Brooklyn rabbi asked that the children of the congregation be allowed to help decorate it. The team designed a craft project using laser-cut cardboard leaves.
The challenge with the Georgetown sukkah was that it would need to be rebuilt year after year by students.
“This will definitely read ‘sukkah’,” said Grossman. “It’s more traditional, but we had this moment when we were passing around plants and smelling them.”
The team used the fragrant plants to create the s’chach, the temporary booth’s roofing, selecting a mixture of eucalyptus, myrtle and blue huckleberry. The school will have to create a new one next year.
Sukkot offers both Jewish teachings and universal themes, Gartner explained, “We ask ourselves ‘What is ephemeral and what remains? How do we interact with our environment? In an appreciative and harmonious way or otherwise?’ ”
And, she continued, when we forsake our permanent buildings for the temporary, we discover what is truly permanent. “We invite guests, ushpizin, the faces of those who give our lives meaning, and we remember what is truly important to us and what is not.”
“The sukkah is the place where you have an intimate dialogue about your place in the world,” said Bryan. “You step inside this shelter and are isolated from the world and then you look out into the world. My favorite experience is camping in the desert and feeling the vastness of the world. That is the sukkah. How do you recreate that experience in the middle of a city? That moment of isolation?”
Specifically of this sukkah he notes, “This twiny, grassy structure in Georgetown is the Other in the middle of gothic architecture.”
Grossman imagines the conversations that might occur on campus, “If you don’t know a sukkah and you see something, you ask questions. You say why is green stuff on the roof. Interesting conversations for Jews and non-Jews alike. For non-Jews who don’t know and Jews who have to explain where they may not have thought about it before. Building a sukkah in a multireligious context invites rich conversations about building practice and spatial practice and religious practice.
“It is space governed by rules that are religious in nature.”