In the most creative food drive imaginable, 26 teams of architects, engineers, designers, and others gathered on October 30 to test their wits in the 21st annual New York City Canstruction Design/Build Competition. Teeing off downtown in the Winter Garden and in the nearby lobby of Brookfield Place (formerly the World Financial Center), Canstruction workers used over 100,000 unopened cans of food to create giant sculptures that will help to feed New York’s hungry. Viewers marvel at the clever and often charming results, wondering about how the schemes came to be and, more to the point, how in the world they were ever built.
Canstruction participants typically begin their preparations in late winter, as teams form and brainstorm for a design. Once decided, architects and engineers most often use the same high-tech computer modeling programs that they run to design complex buildings, and work out structural stability, weight loads, contours, and the size, number, shape, and colors of the cans required. Then it’s off to the store.
Instead of a typical grocery list with, say, Goya pinto beans, Bumble Bee tuna, and a 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes, a Canstruction shopping list might read: 4 ¾-inch-high can with dark blue label, 1 ½-inch-high white label, and a 4 1/2-inch-high red can (circumferences also specified). In other words, the importance is in the packaging, not the specific contents (although strict rules govern nutritional value and prohibit fast food).
In the case of IBI-Gruzen Samton architects, the team decided to create a pin sculpture similar to the toy boxes in which hundreds of pins slide easily back and forth to take on the 3-dimensional form of a hand, nose, or whatever else is pressed into them. Here, it was not so much a question of label color but of finding cans with a long thin pin-like shape. Asparagus spears provided the answer.
For team Arup’s rendition of the Disney classic “Lady & the Tramp,” cans of Campbell soup were a natural choice for the installation’s red and white checkered tablecloth. Blue labels for water, green for monsters, bluish-white for ice and igloo, red bean labels for earth. Many of the labels serve double duty with blended colors achieved with subtle adjustments from front to back.
The process was reversed for the Studios Architecture team, as they had discovered a sleek, silvery tin of sardines in 2012 and wanted to use it in this year’s competition. So, instead of starting with a scheme and then figuring out its construction requirements, the architects had the building-blocks in mind from the start but needed some way to use them. 8,500 cans later, they produced a giant metallic skull.
Each team is responsible for providing all required materials, whether through fund-raising, personal donations or sponsorship. The Skanska team, for instance, bought 50 cans at Trader Joe’s only to have the remaining 1,100 donated by the new Fairway Market in Chelsea. Meanwhile, the Gristedes supermarket chain provided the Silman Associates team with a below-cost discount for the 1,785 cans needed to build its LoCANness Monster.
The good stories are countered by less happy tales. The corporate sponsor for the Dattner Architects team, for example, dropped out three weeks before the competition. All of a sudden team members were saddled with the unexpected challenge of 11th-hour fund raising. “We’re lucky to be here at all,” beamed a young architect.
Most teams build a test sculpture in rehearsal for the competition, soliciting comments from colleagues and, in theory, working out the bugs. But despite computer modeling and calculations, it’s really only by building that some of the greatest challenges are met. After all, it’s a not a question of welded structural steel but of food cans stacked and balanced. A young engineer at Skanska construction explained that her team had built several partial test models, but never successfully. Each attempt underlined the need for sturdier support for its loop-de-loop roller coaster of 1,100 cans of anchovies, tuna, and Campbell’s soup.
For its asparagus-and-baked-beans pin sculpture, IBI-Gruzen Samton built a partial test, about half the size of the final. But it wasn’t until the night of the actual competition that the architects discovered that the 2,600 cans of asparagus spears, all from the same food supplier, were canned at two different facilities, each producing cans of slightly different diameter. Under normal circumstances the discrepancy would be unimportant, but for the Canstruction team, all cans had to align perfectly; the small differences led to uneven stacking. Worse yet was the discovery that, under the labels, some of the cans were ribbed, which made it difficult for the individual “pins” to slide easily in and out. The determination of this team to somehow prevail was an incredible display of architectural grace under pressure.
Some fifty feet to the west, the team from Ferguson & Shamamian Architects allowed that they had wanted to build a test of their 3,250-can social media cube but had no time since the cans were delivered just a day before the competition. The team thus began its concept untested; half-way through, they realized the growing risk of structural failure – collapse – and had to redesign on the spot, abandoning the original intention to roof over the cube.
The competition began at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 30, with high excitement and energy, surrounded by the tools of the trade: countless aluminum cans of all sizes, cardboard and chipboard “leveling plates” (limited to ¼-inch thickness; no sheet metal or ½-inch plywood; no 2x4s or load-bearing materials; no permanent adhesives). There were stacks of small circular disks to mitigate the different heights of cans, computer graphs and grids galore, and everywhere a smart phone image showing intended results. Regulations limited sculptures to 8 feet in height, 10 feet in length and width. As the stacked cans grew, team members climbed 12-foot ladders (carried on the subway) to add finishing touches without toppling their creations. The floor was strewn with paper clips, wire, Velcro, and, of course, miles of Scotch tape. By morning, it was over.
The sculptures will remain on public display until November 13, at which point they will be dismantled and the cans donated to City Harvest, the world’s first food rescue organization, for distribution to some 400 soup kitchens and food pantries across the five boroughs. Admission to the popular exhibition is free, but each visitor is encouraged to deposit a can of wholesome food into one of the collection bins at each entrance.
The New York competition will be judged by a celebrity panel of architects, designers, builders, and executive chefs, with awards in the following categories:
- Best Meal (the sculpture incorporating the most balanced menu)
- Best Use of labels
- Structural Integrity (here’s where the engineers excel)
- Jurors’ Favorite
- Honorable Mentions (2)
Also, there is now a Peoples’ Choice award. To vote for your favorite, go to: www.facebook.com/CanstructionNY?v=app_126231547426086&
Local winners are announced at the Canstruction gala on November 7, and then succeed to an international competition decided each spring.
New York is one of 170 cities around the world taking part in Canstruction. More than 15 million cans of food have been donated since the late Cheri Melillo founded the non-profit organization in 1992.
See the attached slideshow for selected in-progress photos, and then visit Canstruction's page on Facebook for photos of the completed sculptures. Better yet, visit the exhibition for yourself and enjoy a whimsical, wonderful display of community spirit, and a very creative fight against hunger. You’ll be glad you did.
Location: The Winter Garden and (former) World Financial Center Complex at 220 Vesey Street, west of the World Trade Center
Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (5 p.m. on November 13)
Admission: Free. Suggested donation is one can of food per person
To experience the building excitement, watch Canstruction's video.