Sukkot is an autumnal Jewish holiday that dates back to the 16th century Pale of Settlement and commemorates the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery. Now in its second iteration, the Chicago Sukkah Design Festival invites contemporary architects to reinterpret an architectural typology at the center of Sukkot: the Sukkah, a temporary hut used for hosting ceremonies during the seven-day long event.
Founded by Could Be Design’s Joseph Altshuler, the second annual Chicago Sukkah Design Festival convened community organizations and designers to build six sukkahs in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood at James Stone Freedom Square. Hundreds of community members attended the October 1 opening to see the six custom-built sukkahs; learn about the Jewish holiday; and take part in art projects, community rituals, participatory performances, and more.
According to Altshuler, Chicago Sukkah Design Festival is about building solidarity between Chicago’s Jewish community; North Lawndale, a predominantly African-American neighborhood; and the city at-large. “The energy from the opening weekend was palpable and helped to solidify the power of the significance of the sukkah and how design can peacefully bring different communities together,” Altshuler said.
“The festival itself is about design literacy, social justice, and neighborhood futuring, yet the second life of the sukkah is of equal importance. After the festival closes, the sukkahs will become permanent program spaces for the community groups that co-designed them. This is an effort to make the typical design festival more sustainable, more profound, and more meaningful as a change agent,” Altshuler continued.
Designers paired up with community organizations to build sukkahs that addressed the thematics of social justice, anti-racism, and neighborhood futuring. The design teams and their paired organizations are listed below:
- Studio Becker Xu and One Lawndale Children’s Discovery Center
- Odile Compagnon, Erik Newman, YMEN and North Lawndale Greening Committee
- Akima Brackeen, Office of Things, and I Am Able
- Antwane Lee and Building Brighter Futures Center for the Arts
- Architecture for Public Benefit, Trent Fredrickson, Mishkan Chicago and Lawndale Christian Community Church
- Could Be Design and the Chicago Tool Library
Office of Things (OOT), a firm led by Lane Rick, Can Vu Bui, Vincent Calabro, JT Bachman, and Katie Stranix, partnered with Akima Brackeen, an independent practitioner and UIUC assistant professor, and two IIT students, Emily Duong and Michael Graham, for their sukkah.
“The community organization we partnered with is called I Am Able which provides mental health services in Chicago,” OOT’s Calabro said. “One of the current programs I Am Able is currently involved in is called TREEmendous which focuses on environmental health. TREEmendous’s goal is to reduce Chicago’s pollution and heat island effect by planting trees in neighborhoods where there are a lack of trees. North Lawndale is one of those pockets,” Calabro told AN.
I AM BLOOMING pulls from West African, African-American, and Jewish design. “We went with a bright orange design based on ideas of blooming and sequence,” Brackeen told AN. “You’ll notice in our structure a circle rotates meant to bring about the lunar calendar, the lunisolar calendar, this cycle of harvest from Jewish culture while in African-American culture, this evokes a healing circle, or a rap cipher.”
Other sukkahs like One To Many / Many To One and A Season is Set for Everything use locally sourced materials with site-specific paintings and art pieces. For the Chicago Tool Library’s piece, It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Toolshed, Could Be Design installed shelves stocked with tools and equipment the public can borrow with a “cocoon-like structure.” Sukkah of Connectedness presents itself as a structure with a tangled, lattice-like exterior. It exemplifies intersectional Jewish and African-American cultures and struggles. One Lawndale Gathering Tree draws upon Jewish culture’s Tree of Life symbol.
Through October 21, James Stone Freedom Square is activated by the sukkahs along with cross-cultural programming that brings together intersectional neighborhood groups. One of those programs includes the Lawndale Pop-Up Spot with an exhibit curated by Miguel Limon that documents the co-design process of each sukkah.
Each sukkah will be relocated and permanently re-installed at the community organization’s home address that co-designed them. Each will serve as either garden pergolas, rooftop playscapes, heritage museums, meditation pavilions, community memorials, or tool libraries.
The 2023 Chicago Sukkah Design Festival was made possible by The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, Innovation 80, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Voices: The Chicago Jewish Teen Foundation, Chicago Architecture Biennial, Jewish United Fund, and the Illinois Arts Council Agency.