Build a Car Out of Food? Can Do!

22 Oct, 2006 By: Tricia Vita

Architects and engineers join Canstruction to create amazing sculptures that later come apart to feed the hungry

What do CAN You Spare a Pear, La Cantina and Tour de Cans have in common? They're super-size sculptures created out of canned goods by architecture and engineering firms for recent Canstruction competitions in Dallas and Washington, D.C. After a one-night build-out, awards ceremonies and public exhibitions, the sculptures were de-canstructed and 50 tons of canned food was donated to local food banks.

"Canstruction combines the competitive spirit of a design/build competition with a unique way to help feed hungry people," says Cheri Melillo, executive director of Canstruction. The Society for Design Administration developed Canstruction with the 1993 New York City Canstruction competition and now it encompasses 80 chartered events in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

From Arlington to Wichita, dozens of cities are hosting Canstruction events throughout the year. Upcoming competitions include Boston (Boston Public Library, October 23-November 10), Atlanta (Colony Square Mall, November 10-16) and New York (New York Design Center, November 9-22). The complete list of participating Canstruction cities and dates is posted online.

Shop (and Build) Till You Drop
In the weeks leading up to "build night," the all-volunteer Canstruction teams brainstorm ideas, then shop for the perfect cans based on size and label color. It's not as easy as it sounds. "We lay it all out and look at the dimensions," Melillo explains. Ideally, cans of differing heights and varieties must nest to provide stability. "If you have one can that is 8" tall, do you have two 4" cans that would say hello to it?" she says.

Many teams call on CAD software for the design process. Henry Leimann of Jonathan Bailey Associates says his team used Autodesk 3ds Max for conceptual design and visualization. "Then the model was imported into AutoCAD 2004 to print and produce the different layers of the structure to help build it."

Canstruction teams compete in four categories: Best Use of Labels, Best Meal, Structural Ingenuity and Jurors' Favorite. Honorable Mention and Most Cans designations are also awarded. Local winners are photographed and entered in the national competition, which took place this past June, in conjunction with the American Institute of Architects and Society for Design Administration national conventions in Los Angeles.

CHICK-Can of the Sea, designed by Butler Rogers Baskett Architects, won the Best Use of Labels national award at the 10th Annual North American Canstruction Competition in June. (Photo by Kevin Wick)

How It Stacks Up
A typical Canstruction sculpture consists of 6,000 cans, but winners in the Most Cans category often use upwards of 19,000. Sculptures must be self-supporting, so using glue, 2x4s or plywood is strictly against the rules. However, adhesives such as clear tape as well as wire and rubber bands are allowed, as are leveling materials such as 1/4"-thick cardboard and foam core.

Omniplan's CAN You Spare a Pear earned the Most Cans and Best Use of Labels designations at the Canstruction competition in Dallas late this summer. The sculpture used 6,903 cans along with 60 other food items.

"Part of the appeal of the sculpture is to make it structurally stable but create the illusion that you are dry stacking," says architect Alberto Quinones of Platt Byard Dovell White Architects. The New York firm has won honors three years in a row, including the 2005 national award for Structural Ingenuity for a seashell sculpture titled Manhattan Can Chowder.

The seashell was a series of spheres modeled in AutoCAD, plotted along a logarithmic spiral -- the actual design of every seashell. Quinones says he went through 50 different models before he stumbled on the complex form that was used. It's no wonder he views a Canstruction project as an excellent tool for learning AutoCAD. "You basically take the three-dimensional object, slice it, disassemble it, separate it -- and then the final step, if you choose to go there, is to reassemble it in three dimensions. That will show you the position of every single can on your final project."

Platt Byard Dovell White Architects built this sculpture, Manhattan Can Chowder, which earned the 2005 Canstruction national award for Structural Ingenuity. An exterior of sardine tins is infilled with canned clams and other canned seafood. (Photo by Kevin Wick)

As for his general approach to a Canstruction design, Quinones says, "I generally draw what I really want first, the 3D object, without thinking too much about the cans. You want to keep the center of gravity inside the farthest edge. Other than that, you can really play around with different cantilevers. Of course, [designs] can't have some huge cantilever that flies off into nowhere, but you can have the project really bow out in very interesting shapes. Take chances. I think if people are too conservative because they feel the project might topple, they're missing out on some opportunities. I personally like cantilevers and exploring the possibilities with what can be done with them." Not every Canstruction team uses CAD, Quinones says. "There are some projects that are simple enough in form that you don't need to use CAD, but if a project is especially complex, you can pretty much bet that CAD has been used. There's no way we could have done the seashell without CAD."

And the secret ingredient of a successful build? Quinones says it's chip board -- his preference is 1/16". "I would recommend that you use at least 1/32" chip board between each layer -- the thinner the better, that really impresses the judges. Generally cans have a lip that causes them to naturally want to nest together, so it can cause a collapse if you don't use anything at all."

Joining the Fun and Philanthropy
Quinones can't talk about Canstruction without talking about how it brings his officemates together to do a good deed for the community. Nearly a third of his 35-person office gets involved in the event, he says. "We've been very, very passionate about the charity and about making a fun design. It helps build teamwork in the office. It's just a wonderful event." To be part of this charitable effort, join a Canstruction group in your area or sponsor an event. (Organizers emphasize that Canstruction is a registered trademark of the Society for Design Administration. Canstruction events must be coordinated with the permission of that group.) Details and contact information are available on the Canstruction Web site.

Merriman & Associates Architects built On the Road to ApPEAse Hunger, based on a character in the Disney movie "Cars." The sculpture earned the Honorable Mention honor in the Dallas Canstruction competition. It encompasses more than 8,500 grocery items, including peas, beans, applesauce, evaporated milk, bottled water, ramen noodles and gelatin cups.

About the Author: Tricia Vita

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