Building the Sukkah of the Signs

The Sukkah of the Signs

The Sukkah of the Signs, also known as The Homeless House project, was constructed in New York City’s Union Square as part of Sukkah City, an international design competition to re-imagine the ancient building type of sukkah and propose radical possibilities for traditional design constraints in a contemporary urban site. Twelve finalists were selected by a panel of celebrated architects, designers, and critics, and their sukkahs were constructed in a visionary temporary village in Union Square Park on September 19-20, 2010.

While the project and designs were well-publicized, here is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Sukkah of the Signs.

Also known as The Homeless House, the Sukkah of the Signs was constructed of approximately 300 signs collected from indigent people across the United States. Just as the sukkah commemorates shelter provided during the forty desert-wandering years of Exodus, the design for this sukkah brings attention to the contemporary state of homelessness and wandering, and serves as a vehicle to raise awareness of homelessness in the United States. By purchasing homeless signs from the individuals who made them, the project contributed to the short-term needs of people living on the street by transferring the competition winnings directly to the homeless.

Collecting 300 signs from the street at first seemed a daunting task. In the first weeks of collection, I had to discover where people with signs could be found. Perhaps you’d encounter one person on a highway off-ramp or busy commercial street, but many laws, regulations, and actual physical barriers are put in place to prevent people from panhandling, or “flying signs,” as it is often called.

Eventually, I came to know the city from the perspective of those who used the sign as their livelihood. I understood traffic patterns, shopping patterns, and patterns of density and movement that are intimate to the understanding of people on the street. Collecting five signs during a single outing at one point seemed like a triumph. Towards the end of the month spent collecting the signs, I could collect over fifteen in a few hours.

In addition to discovering the city in a new way, the stories I uncovered were perhaps the most meaningful and memorable components of this process. Humor is often used in the creation of signs to draw attention to the person. Perhaps the most profound sign was that of a woman with no legs, whose sign read, “need a new pair of shoes.”

While most of the process was positive, one encounter demonstrated the harsh reality of living on the streets. My typical method was to simply approach someone and ask if they would be willing to sell their sign. I approached one young couple sitting next to a highway off-ramp. They had a two-year-old child and a baby in a stroller, and with a very large sign they were making a plea to passersby for assistance. I approached the father directly and asked if he would be willing to consider selling his sign. His reaction was one of confusion and agitation, and he asked me how I would dare to ask such a question. I explained that I meant no harm, but he aggressively sent me on my way. I felt so bad after this encounter, especially because I had a new baby about the same age as the one in the stroller, that I decided to return and offer them a donation — no questions asked.

When I came close, the mother and father were in a heavy conversation, and the young father turned to me and quickly said, “I thought you asked me if I would be willing to sell you my son.” I was shocked, not only by the miscommunication, but by the notion that such disgusting queries might not be uncommon in the streets.

One of the signs that was most photographed during the exhibition was one on which was written, “what does a homeless person look like,” and which had a mirror attached to it. Another sign had a cup attached to it, and read “spair change” [sic]. This sign was mounted near the door of the sukkah, and the cup was continually filled with money throughout the day.

Union Square Park, where the two-day exhibition took place, is “home” to much of Manhattan’s homeless population. A surreal moment occurred when two homeless gentlemen with signs began shouting at the large crowd admiring the Sukkah of the Signs. One of them stated that he was a “real” homeless person and not a “fake” like the sukkah they were viewing, and he demanded that contributions be made to his cause. I approached the young man, and he began to tell me the problems he had with the project, not knowing I was the author. I then explained to him the goals of the project and that I was involved it its making, and he became very enthusiastic and darted into the crowd with donation cup in hand, announcing to everyone the concepts behind the project. He remained at the sukkah throughout the day and admitted he did quite well that day.

Project Date: 2010

Project Team: Ronald Rael, Virginia San Fratello, Blane Hammerlund, Maricela Chan, Emily Licht

Fabrication: Karol Popek (Modelsmith International, Inc.)

Project Information: Sukkah City | Sukkah of the Signs News | The Homeless House | Out of 624 submissions from 43 countries, 12 winners were selected by a panel of distinguished architects, designers, and critics.

Acknowledgments: Bryan Allen, Steven Brummond, Maricela Chan, Scott Ewart, Alzbeta Jungrova, Blane Hammerlund, Rockne Hanish, Phil and Amber House, Emily Licht, Colleen Paz, Karol Popek and his crew, Lauren Rosenbloom, Randolph Ruiz, Adam Tilove, Jenny Trumble, and many others who offered advice and spread the word.