Construction as Prayer

Volume 50, Issue 2 :: Rebeccah Tuscano-Moss and Michael J. Crosbie

The Making of the Sukkah

Architecture student design for the sukkah includes a partially covered roof and niches for offerings.

Architecture students involved in building the sukkah

Some of the architecture students who prefabricated building elements and assembled them for the sukkah. The construction of this Jewish ceremonial space was accomplished on a secular university campus with a multifaith student team, many of whom experienced the making of the sukkah as a form of prayer.

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 acting upon materials to bring it forth can allow the designer/maker to extend one’s self into the environment, inhabiting the built world. Such constructions can be the result of creative actions in which the maker’s spirit and labor are transformed into symbolically meaningful objects. In his book, The Social Construction of Reality, Peter Berger writes 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.1 Mircea Eliade expresses a very similar idea in The Sacred and the Profane, when he writes that in creating a world to inhabit through human labor, one not only “cosmicizes chaos but also sanctifies his little cosmos by making it like the world of the gods.”2

Another perspective on human labor is as a form of prayer through which the human spirit is projected into the object being created. Much physical labor, particularly building construction, is made up of repetitive actions: digging trenches, laying bricks, tiling roofs. In most world religions prayer is likewise a repetitive action: the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass is a ritual repeated over and over for centuries; praying the rosary incorporates the repetitive action of prayers recited in decades; members of monastic orders repetitively circulate a cloister as a form of prayer. Muslims use misbaha prayer beads to recite a circuit of 33 prayers; Buddhists and Hindus employ the Japa Mahala to recite 27 prayers four times in repetition; those of the Baha’i faith recite a verse 95 times after ritual ablutions.

We explored the connection between conceiving, making, and prayer in the design and construction of a sukkah by Department of Architecture students on the University of Hartford campus in West Hartford, Connecticut, working in collaboration with the campus Hillel Jewish student organization. The sukkah is a freestanding or attached enclosure in which the Jewish holiday of Sukkot is celebrated. Sukkot begins on the fifth day after Yom Kippur and lasts seven days. During this time, a benediction is offered and meals are shared within the sukkah, which should be made of natural materials and have a roof covering partially open to the sky. The sukkah must be built under the open sky without obstructions (not under a tree, or located with a room above it). 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. Its material should have grow out of the ground but no longer attached to the earth. In this project, the roof covering was of saplings collected in a nearby woods and phragmite obtained from along a river on campus. These were laid over the open roof between the sukkah walls. By Jewish law the walls can be no higher than 30 feet and no lower than 3 feet tall, and the space must be big enough for at least one person (preferably more).

Sukkah construction underway

Sukkah construction underway on campus; elements earlier prefabricated by students will be disassembled after the festival of Sukkot.

Because this is a campus structure, the sukkah walls are designed so that they can be easily assembled with repetitive units that can 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 are open to receive gifts and offerings for the holiday, and they are adorned with graffiti (another sukkah tradition) that was laser cut. The sukkah wall units were constructed by students weeks before final assembly on campus.

The work was completed by students and faculty of Jewish, Islamic, Christian, agnostic, or 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. Prayers were offered at the beginning and end of the two days of construction. During construction, a Roman Catholic student remarked that he felt that he didn’t need to attend Mass that day because he saw 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 her departed grandmother.

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The process of designing and making architecture can take on the spiritual dimensions of prayer; in fact the act of prayer and the repetitive nature of building construction offer ways of transcending the everyday and accessing the spiritual. As the writer Wendell Berry, in his article “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” so eloquently observes: “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…. Work connects us both to Creation and eternity.”3


  1. The Social Construction of Reality, (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1967), p. 104.
  2. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1959), p. 65.
  3. Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Cross Currents, Volume 43, No. 2, 2011,, accessed January 4, 2017.

Rebeccah Tuscano-Moss was an adjunct professor at the University of Hartford and now teaches at Westminster School in Simsbury, Connecticut. Michael J. Crosbie is a professor at the University of Hartford.