This year, the observance of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot begins on Monday, September 20, the fifth day after Yom Kippur, which is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, focusing on atonement and prayer. Sukkot lasts a week, and during these seven days a benediction is offered and meals are shared within a sukkah—a temporary structure that serves as the setting for fellowship. A few years ago, the design and construction of a sukkah presented itself as an opportunity for architecture students at the University of Hartford to make an impression on the campus as well as serve the needs of those observing Sukkot, working in collaboration with the campus Hillel Jewish student organization. In the process, and on their own, the students discovered that the act of building has certain connections with the act of prayer, which gave this design/build project an added dimension quite appropriate for this temporary religious building.
At its most basic level, the design and construction of architecture is a product of human thought and labor. Whether practiced by talented professionals or inspired amateurs, the act of conceiving a design and then manipulating materials to bring it forth can allow the designer/maker to extend herself into the environment, inhabiting the built world. The writer Peter Berger observed in his book The Social Construction of Reality that this very human drive “externalizes” people into the world outside of themselves. He describes humans as “world constructors” who fabricate objects through which they externalize themselves, projecting their “own meanings and reality,” thus transcending the natural world.
Human labor can also be conceived as a form of prayer through which the human spirit is projected into whatever is being created. Much physical labor, particularly building construction, is made up of repetitive actions: digging trenches, laying bricks, tiling roofs. In most religions, prayer is likewise a repetitive action: a ritual repeated over and over. For instance, many Catholics pray the rosary, which incorporates the repetitive action of prayers recited in five decades; Muslims use misbaha prayer beads to recite a circuit of 33 prayers; Buddhists and Hindus employ japa mala beads to recite 27 prayers four times in repetition; those of the Baha’i faith recite a verse 95 times after ritual ablutions.
This connection between prayer and construction emerged as the design/build sukkah took its form. The design and construction of a sukkah is governed by certain traditions and rules. By Jewish law the walls can be no higher than 30 feet and no lower than 3 feet, and the space must be big enough for at least one person, preferably more. It can be a freestanding or attached enclosure made of natural materials with a roof partially open to the sky without obstructions (not under a tree or with another room above it, for example). The walls can stay up all year, but the roofing should be unprocessed plant material (known as sechach or s’kahakh) and should be in place no longer than 30 days before the holiday to prevent it from wilting. The roofing material should grow out of the ground but no longer be attached to the earth. In the case of this sukkah, the roof covering was of saplings collected in a nearby woods, and phragmite obtained from around a pond. These were laid over the open roof between the sukkah walls.
Because this was a temporary campus structure, the sukkah walls were designed so that they could easily be assembled with repetitive units that could be demounted and stored for next year’s holiday. In Judaism the numbers 6, 12, and 18 are sacred, so the students incorporated them into demountable units 18 inches square, which had depths of 6, 12, and 18 inches. When assembled into a wall, these square niches were open to receive gifts and offerings for the holiday, and adorned with graffiti (another sukkah tradition) that was laser cut. The sukkah wall units were constructed by the students weeks before final assembly on campus.
The design/build work was completed by students and faculty of Jewish, Islamic, Christian, agnostic, and atheistic backgrounds, but all seemed to engage the project in the spirit of construction as a form of prayer. As 150 individual plywood units were fabricated, transported, and assembled, the work took on a repetitive nature, which some students and faculty likened to prayers and chants. During construction, a student who was a practicing Roman Catholic remarked that he felt that he didn’t have to attend Mass that day because he considered his sukkah work a form of worship. A practicing Muslim student asked to help because she had just received word that her grandmother had passed away in Bangladesh. She felt alone and wanted to help construct this space for Jewish ritual as a way to pray for departed grandmother.
The University of Hartford is a secular institution, so the “prayerful” dimension of this design/build project was unanticipated and arose spontaneously among those working on it. It suggests that the act of designing and making architecture—even nonreligious structures—can take on a spiritual dimension. This was a dimension inherent in numerous ancient building projects, many of which were for religious purposes. In fact, for some people both the act of prayer and the repetitive nature of construction can offer transcendence.
As the writer Wendell Berry observed: “If we think of ourselves as living souls, immortal creatures, living in the midst of a Creation that is mostly mysterious, and if we can see that everything we make or do cannot help but have an everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for the world, then we see why some religious teachers have understood work as a form of prayer.”
All photos by Rebecca Tuscano-Moss.