In backyards and on high-rise balconies here and there across Toronto, little temporary shelters called sukkahs are going up in anticipation of the ancient Jewish festival of Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Sunday. Believers and their families and guests will dine and entertain, and some will even sleep, in these simple outdoor structures during the upcoming week.
If they perform the role assigned to them by sacred tradition, the sukkahs will remind the celebrants of at least two things: the time of homelessness their ancestors endured during the 40 years of pilgrimage that followed the exodus from Egypt, and the protection (symbolized by these huts or booths) that God unfailingly gave his people in the wasteland.
But, according to Nancy Singer, Sukkot has a message for all people of good will, Jews and gentiles alike, having to do with the human yearning for a safe, secure dwelling place. It's a concern near Ms. Singer's heart. As executive director of Kehilla Residential Programme, the Toronto-based non-profit housing agency, she looks after some 500 units that people living on low incomes can afford (with a little help), and she is constantly working to increase Toronto's stock of homes for the clients funnelled into her organization by Jewish community groups.
"Sukkot means the importance of shelter," Ms. Singer told me. "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."
So it was that, last year, she and some like-minded people, inspired by a similar event staged in New York in 2010, decided to launch the consciousness- and fund-raising project called Sukkahville. It was to be an international sukkah design competition leading up to a delightful public statement about the serious intentions of Kehilla.
"Being a creative agency, we're always trying to find something that symbolizes what we do," Ms. Singer said. "We work quietly, behind the scenes. But this was something that was really a vehicle to get our brand out there, and to create awareness of the need for affordable housing."
Selected by a blue-ribbon jury from more than 140 proposals, the five winning entries in this year's Sukkahville contest – imaginative reinterpretations of the traditional sukkah by Canadian and American architects, designers and students – go on view at noon on Sunday in North York's Mel Lastman Square. (The leading contributor to the $35,000 competition and exhibition budget has been the Daniels real-estate development group. Numerous individuals and corporations, in addition, have given just under $65,000 for Kehilla's work.)
Part of the fun in Sukkahville is due to the strict rules by which the contestants were required to play the game. A rabbi was called in, for example, to insure that the design criteria harmonized with religious orthodoxy.
According to the resulting competition brief, the roof of the sukkah had to be crafted from "some form of natural materials. During the day, it must provide more shade than sunlight. During the evening, the stars must be visible…"
Within these and other limits, however, architectural imagination was given free rein – with results that will likely turn out to be formally engaging, intellectually provocative, and, in one or two cases, merrily off the wall.
I am surely no expert on the etiquette and decorum expected on the eve of Jewish holidays, but a visit to Mel Lastman Square on Sunday afternoon strikes me as as a very interesting way (if not the most solemn one) to kick off this fall's Sukkot celebration.
If you go, you'll see (for instance) the work called Sukkanoe. Designed by a team led by University of Houston architecture professors Gregory Marinic and Michelangelo Sabatino, this elegant, sinuous pavilion is clad in birch bark, and is intended to resemble an overturned canoe. The creators tease out the symbolism of their work in a written statement: "The shape and materials used for this concept are meant to recall the innovation and self-reliance of first nations peoples, the challenges of European/voyageur explorations, and the transience of the Sukkot holiday and Jewish migration to Canada."
For Mr. Marinic and Mr. Sabatino, this blending of spiritualities and histories is a way of doing, not just architecture, but also theology in the present day.
"Neither of us is Jewish," Mr. Marinic said in a telephone interview. "Here's two Roman Catholics working on a structure for a faith we are not intimately familiar with. But it enabled us to research the tradition of what the sukkah means. I think that an outside perspective on something often actually renews it, by engaging multicultural, multi-religious, multi-spiritual reinterpretations of something central to a faith."