Three autumns ago, as Frank Gehry’s strikingly wavy 8 Spruce St. was growing into the city’s tallest residence, and as Diller Scofidio + Renfro was putting the finishing touches on its bold remaking of Alice Tully Hall, a dozen humble ritual huts set up in Union Square for two days stole the architectural spotlight in the city.
One sukkah, inspired by the eruv, was made out of a huge length of wire. Another looked like a prickly porcupine. And a third, offering commentary on the nature of the sukkah as a shelter of impermanence, was constructed out of cardboard signs held by homeless people.
On the strength of the ritual huts’ architectural ingenuity, Sukkah City drew huge crowds to Union Square and gave the harvest festival of Sukkot — when Jews are commanded to have a week’s worth of meals in ritual booths to mark the Israelites’ desert wanderings — a visibility it hadn’t had before.
Now, Sukkah City, the national design competition that concluded with the selection of the 12 coolest booths and a two-day sukkah presentation at Union Square, is the focus of a documentary of the same name by filmmaker Jason Hutt (his name is deliciously coincidental).
The film is fittingly set for public release on Sunday, during the intermediate days of Sukkot, for a free screening in Union Square, before additional showings the next two nights at the JCC in Manhattan.
“I’m just really excited to have a public screening and have people come and celebrate the original Sukkah City,” says Hutt of Sunday’s Union Square screening. “There couldn’t be a better convergence.”
Like the project itself, the film explores many facets of expression tied to the Sukkot holiday — religious, cultural and architectural. Hutt, 36, whose previous work includes a documentary about Orthodox boxer Dmitriy Salita, said he was struck by the notion of the contest when he saw the initial call for entries. “That just sounds like a fantastic combination of activities,” he recalls thinking. “And it would be a really dramatic process to film from start to finish.”
Hutt had previously met author Joshua Foer, Sukkah City’s creator, so he reached out to him and his co-creator Roger Bennett, who is also co-founder of Reboot; the latter granted him access to film the process of the project, beginning with the jury day. Following the heated discussion that resulted in the 12 selected teams, Hutt followed the architects (almost none of them Jewish) as they built their dream sukkot, and discussed their varying interpretations.
“One half of one of 12 winning teams was Jewish,” notes Hutt, “And yet you had all of these architects sort of speaking to different aspects of the sukkah, different meanings, different interpretations.”
Indeed, by following the architects’ processes “Sukkah City” explores both Jewish themes and the spirit of creation. In one scene, a team of young architects and builders goes to a local park to cut down phragmites (a grassy weed) for its schach (natural sukkah covering). And in another, an architect watches with bated breath as a team of workers attempts to balance a huge log on glass walls for his installation.
“The film in a sense is just this really wonderful sort of playing out of creativity and invention,” says Hutt. “And I think ultimately that the audience will find it inspiring and enjoyable.”