Harvesting Ideas

TEXT Michelangelo Sabatino

The global design community is shaped by contradictory impulses: on the one hand, blue-chip architects anxiously compete for high-profile public commissions with signature designs that are loud enough to get the attention of an increasingly distracted media. On the other hand, a growing number of “activist” architects agree with E.F. Schumacher that small is beautiful, and are working to persuade the profession and academia that alternative modes of making and thinking are not only possible but necessary in the wake of grave threats to our environment. The motivations underlining the second annual Sukkahville 2012 competition align themselves with the social conscience of this latter group. Launched by the Toronto-based Kehilla Residential Programme (KRP), an organization that “champions affordable housing in the Greater Toronto area and implements housing initiatives for the Jewish community,” Sukkahville 2012 is part of an increasing number of initiatives that explore low-impact and low-budget “sustainable” housing. Although the Sukkahville 2012 competition shares affinities with activist architects whose work is predicated upon “designing like they give a damn,” they also asked designers to reinterpret a rather unconventional type that combines ritual and religion along with basic shelter. In fact, a sukkah is a temporary freestanding dwelling that is used during the weeklong Jewish celebration of Sukkot and is intended to symbolize solidarity and survival in the wilderness. 

The two-tiered selection process for the Sukkahville 2012 competition was overseen by a jury that included prominent Canadian architects, critics and planners. The five finalists selected by the jury were provided a modest budget of $3,600 to realize their sukkahs as part of a temporary village (September 30th-October 3rd) for North York’s Mel Lastman Square. Although the schemes of the five finalists (from the US and Canada) varied significantly, all of them share a common interest in the romance of organicism in keeping with the theme of nature and wilderness. The Sukkanoe of Houston-based design firms Arquipelago (Gregory Marinic and Nicholas Herrera) and Ambrose&Sabatino (Michelangelo Sabatino and Serge Ambrose) transforms the iconic birch-bark Canadian canoe into a shelter-vessel that befits our hybrid times. Craig Deebanks’s Embryonic Canopy playfully employs balloons to create a hut that blurs the distinction between roof and wall. Harvest Wave by the team of Andrew McGregor, Robert Miller, Raymond Bourraine and Teresa Cacho employs wood to evoke blades of autumnal grass moving with the wind whereas Ion Popian’s Woven Sukkah interweaves bulbous fruit-like elements to create a hybrid space. Finally, Christina Zeibak and Daphne Dow’s Hegemonikon combines orthogonal geometry with curved elements to create an environment that is porous and inviting.

The jurors awarded first prize to Hegemonikon and second prize to Harvest Wave. The substantial turnout and the media coverage surrounding the event has encouraged Kehilla organizers to continue their efforts next year. By encouraging architects and designers to create modest-sized yet imaginative Sukkahs, Sukkahville will continue to raise awareness of the need for affordable housing while promoting the idea that small can indeed be beautiful. CA

Michelangelo Sabatino is Associate Professor at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture, University of Houston.