A booth with a view: Oakland architects build sukkah using signs from the homeless

Ten years ago, architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello started buying cardboard signs off homeless people in and around their Oakland-based firm.

The idea was to exhibit the signs as works of art, then sell them to raise money for charities that benefit the homeless.

But the project stalled, leaving Rael and San Fratello waiting for an opportunity to resurrect them from Rael’s brother’s garage.

That came this year, with the announcement of Sukkah City: NYC 2010, a new, international design competition challenging architects to re-imagine the ephemeral, elemental shelter known as the sukkah.

Sukkah City is the brainchild of Joshua Foer, a journalist, author and member of Reboot, a New York-based nonprofit that encourages creative Jews to “reboot” Jewish traditions and make them relevant again in modern life.

Reboot co-founder Roger Bennett was Foer’s partner in this endeavor. The project also received support from the Union Square Partnership, an organization that works to enhance the atmosphere of New York City’s Union Square.  

“We wanted architects to think about the sukkah in a way that was experimental and contemporary,” Foer said, “and show what kind of creative possibilities can lie within the constraints of Jewish law.”

The contest attracted nearly 600 entries from 43 different countries, including Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, Thailand and Paraguay.

Rael and San Fratello, whose East Bay firm combines architecture, art, culture and environment, created the “Sukkah of the Signs,” a wooden structure clad with signs — some as small as a sheet of paper, some large enough to be a makeshift bed — made by the homeless and destitute.

“Fractured Bubble” was the winner of the contest’s People’s Choice award. photo/courtesy of reboot

Fellow architects Maricela Chan, Emily Licht and Blaine Hammerlund helped construct the sukkah.

A panel of jurors esteemed in the architecture realm looked at the 600 entrees and selected “Sukkah of the Signs” and 11 other entries to be built and displayed Sept. 19 and 20 in Union Square Park in New York City.

Sukkah City organizers are in the midst of auctioning the 12 finalists to raise money for charities benefiting the homeless in New York City.

“This project reinforced something for us as architects,” said Rael, a professor at U.C. Berkeley. “Our designs can send a social and political message, which is often hard to deliver. Clients don’t hire you to make social commentary, but we had the chance to express that through our work.”

Inspired by a mosque made entirely of cardboard that Rael and San Fratello discovered in a Yemenite refugee camp a few years ago, the “Sukkah of the Signs” boasted roughly 280 signs, covering a 10-foot wooden structure of lumber pieces.

The signs came from throughout the Bay Area, mostly in San Francisco. Rael and San Fratello drove down Van Ness, stopped at freeway exits and wandered through the Haight District. Sign bearers led them to others in Golden Gate Park. Rael even put an ad on Craigslist to get more.  

“You see these guys on the streets all the time brandishing these signs,” Rael said. “We thought they were amazing and beautiful works of art.”

Convincing the homeless of that took some time. Rael remembered how awkward it was initially approaching their subjects to ask for their signs — in many cases, it was all they had. He gradually learned that listening to their stories, coupled with an offer to buy the sign for a couple bucks, usually translated to success.

Rael met people of all ages, races and religious backgrounds. They clutched signs that were humorous, serious, thought provoking and strange. One woman held a sign that said: “Need money for a new pair of shoes.” She didn’t have legs.

He approached people who couldn’t talk   or write, grasping signs that made no sense as an act of desperation. In the bowels of Golden Gate Park, he talked to individuals who lost their jobs and couldn’t make rent, stuck in a vicious cycle they could not escape.

“I was already empathetic toward people on the streets,” Rael said. “To a greater extent, I understand the reasons of why they are there. Some accuse [the homeless] of being lazy or wanting to be on the streets, but so many have no choice.”

Light filters through the sukkah’s open roof.

Creating the “Sukkah of the Signs” inspired Rael and San Fratello to start the Homeless House Project, whose aim is to bring attention to homelessness in America. Rael hopes to publish a book with images of the signs used in the sukkah.

“When we learned about the concept of the sukkah, it was a nice way to think about the contemporary issues of homelessness in the U.S. and the interesting stigmas that arise,” Rael said. “In a sense we were waiting for a project like Sukkah City. We had the signs and it was a good opportunity to marry the two projects.”

Erected for one week each fall during the festival of Sukkot, the sukkah is traditionally a space for sharing meals, entertaining, sleeping and rejoicing.

Its construction must adhere to precise parameters: the structure must be temporary, have at least two and a half walls, be big enough to fit a table, and have a roof made of shade-providing organic material through which one can gaze at the stars.

“We’ve inherited this tradition of sukkah building, but very few of us know the real rules or even build them anymore,” said Reboot Executive Director Lou Cove. “For those who do it’s very nice, but it’s not a widely shared creative enterprise. The idea of making the sukkah an architectural piece was a way of reinvigorating that tradition.”  

While the sukkah’s religious function is to commemorate the temporary structures in which the Israelites dwelled during their exodus from Egypt, it is also a symbol of the transience of life as expressed in architecture.    

Contestants did not have to be Jewish. The teams behind the 12 finalists received guidance from Judaic experts on how to craft a kosher sukkah.

Neither Rael nor San Fratello are Jewish, but that didn’t matter.

“At this point, I think I’m much more familiar with the rules of constructing a sukkah than a lot of Jews,” Rael said with a laugh. “Learning about lesser-known traditions of Judaism was really interesting.”

From dawn until dusk Sept. 19 to 20, nearly 200,000 passers-by wandered through Sukkah City in Union Square Park to marvel, inspect and ultimately cast their vote for their favorite sukkah. Roughly 17,000 people weighed in, and the winner was “Fractured Bubble” by New York architects Henry Grosman and Babak Bryan.

Made of simple materials such as plywood, marsh grass and twine, “Fractured Bubble” is a sphere broken into three sections that rotate around a common base. Thanks to spherical geometry, each of the sections was both wall and roof simultaneously. 

To make the wooden globe kosher, the architects covered its three “walls” with oversize blades of grass indigenous to U.S. wetlands. The green bundles attach loosely to the sukkah through random scattered holes, allowing for shade from the sun during the day and a view of the stars at night.

That structure is slated to stand in Union Square Park until Oct. 2, the last day of Sukkot.

“It turns out that architects viewed Jewish law in a way we could not anticipate,” Foer said. “Working with the design constraints handed down for thousands of years was inspiring. They immediately understood how many levels of residence there are in the sukkah — what it means to be impermanent or homeless, to the role it plays in reconnecting Jews with their agricultural past.

“All that is bound up with esoteric rules, some of which are playful,” he continued, noting that a sukkah may be built out of an elephant’s skeleton but no other animal’s. “If that’s not an invitation to do something weird, then I don’t know what is.”

After the success of this year’s Sukkah City, Foer has his sights set on bringing the competition to additional cities.

His top choice?

“San Francisco,” he said. “There’s a dynamic Jewish community and dynamic design teams. It would be wonderful if they came together to make it work.”