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Detroit designed abodes centerpiece of Jewish holiday

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

When ancient Israelites fled Egypt thousands of years ago, according to tradition, they hunkered in huts while roving desert sand.

Ben Mothershead, 24, of Detroit exits the Chaffy Sukkah after viewing.

Those tent-like structures, sukkahs, are the centerpiece of Sukkot, the Jewish holiday festival that began Sunday. And through next week, eye-popping incarnations of those abodes are laying a foundation for creativity in Detroit’s Capitol Park.

Five winning designs in Sukkah x Detroit, an international design competition headed by the city’s Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, are on display to the public in an open-air marketplace featuring produce, food products, crafts and Jewish educational events.

The goal, coordinators say, is spotlighting an age-old custom unfamiliar to some within the framework of artistic enterprise and urban agriculture.

“We look for opportunities for people to connect with what we’re teaching,” said Jodee Raines, president of Isaac Agree. “This connects well. Sukkahs are creative. They’re engaging, they’re accessible. It’s about celebrating.”

Noam Kimelman, 31, of Detroit and Jen Rusciano, 30, of Detroit sit inside the Seedling Sukkah.

The competition was modeled after a similar one in New York, dovetails with a local Month of Design and highlights Detroit’s distinction as a UNESCO Creative City, Raines said.

Contestants were asked to submit designs for a distinctive dwelling that incorporated modern elements while adhering to biblical requirements.

Out of 78 applications from 14 countries, a jury including area artists and designers selected five winners.

Sukkahs are on display in Capitol Park during Sukkah x Detroit. A sukkah, or temporary structure serves as the centerpiece for the eight-day Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

Each team received a $10,000 materials award plus a $5,000 design fee thanks to a $100,000 William Davidson Foundation grant. 

From incorporating recycled plastic vegetable crates to “leaves” and a flaxen shell, the works reflect originality, said jury co-chair Noah Resnick, a principal at the Laavu firm and associate professor directing the graduate architecture program at the University of Detroit Mercy. “Some had never heard of a sukkah before, which allowed them to approach it from a completely unique perspective.”

That informs a blue-tinged, plywood-based piece evoking the tree canopies British creator Abre Etteh eyed as a child in Nigeria. A fabricator with Detroit ties helped him finalize the structure aimed at recreating the cozy nature of a sukkah.

“The holiday is all about thanksgiving,” Etteh said. “I’m hoping it’s a place people can take time off, relax, look each other in the eyes and talk to each other.”