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Canned Wonders

Last November, a team from Butler Rogers Baskett Architects pulled an all-nighter at the New York Design Center. Their mission: to build a 10-foot-long hot dog balanced inside a bun and two nearly 8-foot-tall condiment bottles out of canned food. A mind-boggling 6,394 cans, to be precise. It was far from an ordinary workday for these five employees of a firm whose clients include the Chelsea Piers sports complex and the jeweler Cartier.

“The hot dog was a solid mass with interior rows of baked bean cans,” says team member Danny Maghuyop, noting that “bags of pinto beans (500 in all) rounded out curves between the internal rows of baked beans and the outer layer of Vienna sausage cans.” Balancing the top of the bun on the round hot dog proved to be the trickiest part of the job, he adds, even though they had test-built what might be called a bite-size portion at the office. By the time they put the finishing touches on the hot dog--the yellow squiggle made of mini-packets of mustard---it was about 3 a.m. They raced to sculpt the mustard bottle from yellow-labeled Sunshine Mustard Greens and cap the Hunt’s Tomato Sauce ketchup bottle with Ocean Spray Cranberries before dawn.

The occasion was the 12th annual New York City Canstruction, a design/build competition in which 34 of New York’s top architectural and engineering firms have one night to build sculptures out of canned goods, which are later donated to the city’s food bank. Adjacent to Butler Rogers Baskett’s American Classic was their mission statement, which read in part: “The tantalizing scent of the humble Dog brings Americans of every stripe together to ‘Root, Root, Root, for the Home Team.’ Beating Hunger is this team’s goal.” Occupying the same showroom was Fox & Fowle Architects’ Call to Arms, a wavy-armed octopus created from 3,500 sardine cans and 500 Kool-Aid gels.

“Canstruction is a real win-win because every can of food that is in the structure is going to feed a hungry person, while these amazing art sculptures engage the public and bring focus to the very real problem of hunger in an affluent society,” says Cheri Melillo, Canstruction’s executive director. The name of this construction and design industry charity is a registered trademark of the Society of Design Administration (SDA).

During the two-week Canstruction exhibition at the New York Design Center, more than 10,000 visitors paid the admission fee of one can of food to marvel at the hot dog (winner of Jurors’ Favorite and People’s Choice awards) and the octopus (Honorable Mention), which can both be seen on this issue’s cover. They also got to see such prize-winning wonders as A Can-o-ramic View of the Brooklyn Bridge (Best Meal), Manhattan Can Chowder (Structural Ingenuity), and a red, white and blue Republican elephant and Democratic donkey feeding at the same trough (Best Use of Labels). Afterwards, the 34 sculptures were de-canstructed and more than 116,000 cans were distributed to the Food Bank of New York City.

“Architects live to compete,” Mellilo says with laugh. “So I knew if we made a competition where they got to design something in advance with the cans, they might come up with some very interesting structures.” The idea grew out of a canned food drive by the SDA’s Seattle chapter in the early ‘90s in which the firm that collected the most cans got to build something with them. “They had a hodgepodge of cans, so they built a topographical map of Washington State,” recalls Melillo, who was then the public relations chair for the society. Enthusiastic press coverage of the event inspired the SDA to team up with the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 1993 to create the New York City Canstruction Competition.


Today, more than 45 cities in North America have signed charter agreements allowing them to hold local competitions at museums, cultural centers, shopping malls, schools, and other venues. The all-volunteer effort, whose motto is “one can,” raises more than one million pounds of food annually. “It’s very gratifying, and it’s so much fun to see it grow,” says Melillo, who is now receiving inquiries from abroad. But the question she gets asked most often by people who have seen the finished structures is “How did you do that?” as in “How did you guys get that bun to balance on that hot dog?” Architects and engineers are especially keen to find out the secrets that allowed another firm’s structure to stand without support. “If you’ve found something that works,” explains Melillo, “it gives you a competitive edge.”

The one-day build is the culmination of weeks of strategizing, beginning with brainstorming sessions and shopping for just-the-right-size cans and the right color labels. (See “More than Just Peanuts” on page 9 for a start-to-finish line scrapbook of one team’s Canstruction). “Teams have their shopping bag days when everyone is bringing out what they bought over the weekend,” says Melillo. “They lay it all out and look at the dimensions: what would fit together, what would nestle, and what would give them a problem. If you have one can that is eight inches tall, do you have a three- or four-inch can that would say hello to it?”

Since structures must be self-supporting, two-by-fours and half-inch plywood are against the rules. Leveling materials such as cardboard and quarter-inch foam are allowed, as are clear tape, wire and rubber bands. “We try to stress that you are going to be judged by the purity of the structure,” says Melillo, who notes that entries have become increasingly sophisticated over the past 12 years. If the judges have to choose between a stunning structure that relies on stacking techniques versus one that uses a layer of cardboard between each layer of cans, the pure structure is more likely to be the winner because it was more of a challenge to build.

Melillo points to the sculptural beauty of Platt Byard Dovell White Architect’s seashell titled Manhattan Can Chowder, which is made of sardine tins with an infill of clams and all kinds of seafood (see this issue’s cover) . It collected the award for Structural Ingenuity at the 2004 New York City competition. “Even though the finished form looks so simple,” says Melillo, “Knowing how to stack your internal layers allows you to cantilever in and out.”

Making a structure that presents a well-balanced meal is a popular strategy since the canned food is destined to be somebody’s dinner. It may also help a team win the coveted award for Best Meal. Last year’s national winner in the category was an eight-foot-tall (10 feet by 10 feet by 8 feet high is the maximum allowable size) representation of two giant Easter Island heads, or “Moai.”

The ingredients were 3,492 cans of five different varieties of beans and two types of oranges, 468 jars of peanut butter, and 1000 boxes of juice, oatmeal, and Extreme Green Jell-O. Created by Quadrangle Architects of Toronto, the entry also won Jurors’ Favorite and Best Meal in the local Toronto competition. The team’s mission statement was food for thought: “Over centuries, the people’s desire to build bigger and bigger Moai resulted in massive deforestation. Land erosion began, crops failed, and wars broke out over the battle for control of dwindling resources. Sound familiar?”

In the New York City competition, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects’ A Can-o-ramic View of the Brooklyn Bridge won Best Meal with 1,728 cans of B & M Baked Beans plus 2,705 additional cans of various foods. “The B and M on the label utilized our theme of the bridge, which unites Brooklyn and Manhattan,” explains Gretel Schwartzott, whose team collaborated on the design with high school students from the Pablo Neruda Academy of Architecture and World Studies.

Beneath the bridge, their version of Chinatown was constructed from such Asian canned goods as sugar cane, jackfruit, coconut milk and jasmine tea. “We used one of the cans as a ferryboat and others as high-rise buildings and skyscrapers. They were the most interesting in terms of label design and the best in terms of color and shape.” The team’s grocery bills added up to nearly $4000!


“What will work in one city might not fly in another, so we suggest many different things to participating cities,” says Melillo, who provides a “Blueprint for a Canstruction Competition," an official competition manual, graphics, marketing materials, and brochures to help create a successful competition. “That means getting as many firms involved as possible and getting as much food as possible, as well as attracting the public and the media.”

In 2003, Vancouver, British Columbia, jumped into Canstruction with a gung-ho spirit and received a special commendation for “Most teams ever for a first year competition—30 teams and 122,000 cans.” The event is held in the city’s cruise ship terminal. According to chairperson Margot Paris, this year’s event was themed “A Blast from the Past.” Teams created structures featuring such characters and symbols from the ‘50s and ‘60s as Snoopy, Gumby, Marilyn Monroe and space alien movies.

Vancouver is among the cities with teams from outside the architecture and engineering industry, as well as student teams. “It’s based on what’s feasible for the location,” Melillo notes. The charter agreement requires that each team have a design or construction industry professional acting as a mentor. This also insures the structural integrity of the pieces.

In Orlando, chairperson Deborah Rusnock says the folks at the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida, the beneficiary of the event for the past decade, fielded their own team for the first time in 2004 because they wanted to join in the fun. The event is held in October at the Orlando Fashion Square Mall. Rusnock adds, “Albertsons [a large grocery chain] helps out by giving each team a $500 product credit. The teams love it!”

How CAN you get involved? Visit www.canstruction.org for a list of participating cities. Contact the chairperson in your region for information about upcoming events. This year Dallas is set for August and New Orleans is scheduled for September. Most of the competitions take place in October or November, with another wave of competitions from March through April. “Some competitions let the public vote with dollars for their favorite structure, which raises money for the food banks in addition to the food,” Melillo says.

If there is no competition in your city, you can find out how to organize one by downloading the charter agreement on the Web site. “The chairperson doesn’t necessarily have to be a design and construction professional,” says Melillo, who recommends teaming up with the professionals in your area. “In Kansas City, the organizer is a restaurant manager who fell in love with Canstruction and worked with members of the design and construction industry.”


Every year, the local winners in each official category compete nationally through submission of slides to a national panel of jurors. On May 18, Canstructions completed during the past 12 months were juried at the Society of Design Administration and American Institute of Architects convention in Las Vegas. And the winners---three of which are pictured on this issue’s cover--are (drum roll, please!)...

Jurors’ Favorite: An American Classic (hot dog & condiments), Butler Rogers Baskett Architects, P.C., New York, NY, 6,394 cans

Structural Ingenuity: Manhattan Can Chowder(seashell), Platt Byard Dovell White Architects,
New York, NY, 3,200 cans

Best Use of Labels, Vote to End Hunger, Nadaskay Kopelson Architects, Morristown, NJ,
12,000 cans

Best Meal: Magic Castle of Canderella, Huckabee, Fort Worth, Texas, 7,500 cans

Honorable Mention: A Call to Arms (octopus), Fox & Fowle Architects,
New York, NY, 4,100 cans

Honorable Mention: Fuel for Thought, Fradkin & McAlpin Associates, New York, NY,
2,602 cans

Most Cans: More Than Just Peanuts, Legends Memorabilia/Industrial Brand Creative,
Vancouver, BC, 12,961 cans

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