Building a Temporary House from Homeless People's Cardboard Signs

As part of the Sukkah City design contest, Rael San Fratello honors Jewish heritage and brings attention to homelessness.

The Jewish festival of Sukkot centers on the sukkah, a temporary hut evoking the shelters inhabited during the 40 nomadic years after the biblical Exodus from Egypt. The sukkah concept saw an intriguing new twist last week in New York's Union Square, during a competition called Sukkah City, which asked contemporary architects to reimagine the form. Twelve finalists were culled from more than 600 entrants; but out of these 12, only one was built, in a sense, out of the raw stuff of homelessness.

Designed by the Bay Area firm Rael San Fratello, Homeless House: The Sukkah of the Signs was constructed with signs their team collected from people living on the streets. "Ten years ago, we started to collect signs from the indigent ... with the idea of creating an exhibit that brought attention to homelessness," recalls Ronald Rael. When the Sukkah City contest was born, they realized they had a more pointed way to put them to use. "We felt that the marriage of our previous ideas about signs and the traditional meaning of the sukkah was perfect."

The contest also offered the firm grant money, which they turned into a clever direct donations tool by buying signs straight from their creators. These signs were made on everything from corrugated cardboard to cereal boxes to real estate placards, with pens ranging from Sharpie to lipstick.

As building materials go, the signs, which clad a wooden skeleton, produce an arresting effect, looking a bit like oversized, rough-hewn shingles. And that roughness highlights the point, both of the sukkah and the cause it speaks to. "The form is designed to appear unstable or in motion," Rael says. "Some suggested it looks like Noah's Ark or the Jawas Vehicle from Star Wars."

Photos courtesy of Rael San Fratello

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