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Architects 'Can' Eliminate Hunger

Arlington Food Assistance Center reaps benefits of local architects' friendly — but challenging — competition.

While one might not be surprised to see an iPod at Ballston Common Mall, how often does one see a giant one made out of nonperishable food? Local architects competing in Canstruction donated their time and effort to create sculptures of canned-goods, all of which were subsequently donated to the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC).

"WE REALLY want it to be a social and fun event," says Debbie Burns, executive director of the Northern Virginia chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The four best sculptures are photographed and submitted to the national Canstruction competition, which will take place this summer in Los Angeles at the annual AIA convention.

"I'm pretty surprised that we won," says Brian Donnelly of Grimm & Parker Architects of McLean, whose project won Juror's Favorite. "Paint the Town Fed" consisted of a giant paint-can complete with handle and spilled paint. The only non-can item in the project was the handle.

Wisnewski Blair & Associates, Ltd. of Alexandria created an enormous iPod, named "iCan," which won Best Meal for using diverse and healthy food. The sculpture "CANdidates," by PSA-Dewberry Inc. of Fairfax, won Best Use of Labels, referring to its artistically diverse palette. It consisted of three voting booths and the word "vote" spelled out with cans. The award for Structural Integrity went to "Knock-Out Hunger" by Gensler of Arlington, which was a larger-than-life red boxing glove.

While the contestants enjoy the competition, the community impact is satisfying as well. "It's a wonderful donation to us," says Christine Lucas, executive director of the AFAC. "We distribute groceries to about 600 families a week, and the cans from this project will last a couple of months, maybe even three." Lucas estimates that they will have collected 38,000 pounds of food from this event. The project that used the most cans — about 5,800 — was "King Can," by Cannon Design of Arlington, which resembled King Kong.

Donnelly says that if you look at past entries to the national competition, they are "extraordinarily impressive," and he's not sure how their project will compare. "We went for something that we knew we could build successfully," he explains. Having participated in the competition for three years, his firm understands the limitations of time and technology involved. The Northern Virginia chapter of the AIA has never won an award in the national competition.

"IT'S ALWAYS nice to get to see each other outside of work," says Sonia Jarboe of Geier Brown Renfrow Architects of Alexandria. Her team's project, called "Knock-Down Hunger," was a set of dominoes, each of which was over six feet tall. Three out of four of them were designed to stand upright, which is no small feat. Unfortunately, a giant can opener designed by Cooper Carry Inc. and Haynes Whaley Associates of Alexandria fell down right after it was completed. It was set up outside the Rock Bottom Brewery, and it is rumored that an inebriated patron may have been its undoing. The team members were allowed to rebuild it, however, so it was still part of the competition.

The teams were challenged artistically as well as technically. "We spent a lot of time looking at cans, and we went to several grocery stores," says Jarboe. Not only were they trying to get cans to match their artistic vision, but they were trying to get the best deal. Most of the firms worked with sponsors who helped to purchase the cans.

Safeway randomly selected Samaha Associates of Fairfax to sponsor outright, so their sculpture, "Canspider to Eliminate Hunger," which was a giant spider complete with web, was made out of all Safeway brand products. The only problem was the color scheme, says Namratha Emmela, who worked on the project. "We were about halfway through when we found out," she explains. They had to redesign their sculpture using only Safeway labels. But happily it turns out that Safeway's enriched fettuccine is perfect for spider legs. Samaha's entry was selected as an honorable mention.

The locations of the sculptures, which were decided by lottery, had a big impact on their designs. "The food court is the best," says Burns. Locations that include an aerial view are considered superior, since sometimes the sculptures are best taken in from a higher vantage point. The full effect of the paint can, for example, was best viewed from the floor above, so that the "paint" inside (made of cans, of course) could be seen.

The team members spent a lot of time outside of the office designing their creations. Most worked on the sculptures for about two months before the competition, some even setting up prototypes in the office. The teams had only seven hours on March 31 to put together the sculptures at the mall. "It was a really satisfying challenge," says Jarboe. "We're already talking about ideas for next year."