Hope in a Can: Constructing a Meal out of Art


For the fifth year in a row, global design firm RTKL is participating in CANstruction L.A., a yearly competition that invites prominent builders and designers to create innovative structures—think skyscrapers, rocket ships, rollercoasters—out of cans of food. The structures are judged and put on public display and then the products used are donated to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. RTKL’s principal architect Mark DeMarta and designer Jake Martinez walked us through the creative process—make that challenge—of building conceptual art out of cans.

How does your office decide what to build?
We have an open competition. People turn in sketches and the office votes on the message and how buildable it is. We have an actual committee for the project open to everyone that varies from 4-10 people. Ideas that have been thrown around have ranged from Yoda to the American flag.

What usually inspires your ideas?
In the past we have made a hippo with lights and last year we created a shark—structures that a wider audiences could identify with. This year we are venturing more out into [abstract] art. When it came time to decide on a structure for last year, it was actually shark week on Discovery Channel, and our shark structure, “Take a bite out of hunger,” is what our office decided on.

RTKL won the Jurors’ Best award last year for your structure. When you set out to build, do you keep any of the award categories in mind?
Lately we have pushed the envelope structurally so that people think, What’s holding this thing up? It is more about the personal challenge than the award, that’s not our focus. Our focus is to put something out new and different each time and try to get a message across. The rule is, if the structure does not make us stress out we have not reached out goal.

What materials hold the cans together? Are there any regulations you have to abide by?
We use quarter-inch foam core and quarter-inch max plywood. No adhesives are allowed! We can use cardboard tubes to keep the structure’s shape and keep it from shifting. The base floor plan we have to work with is 10’ by 10’ and no taller than 8 feet in height. Only five people are allowed to build at one given time, and nothing can obstruct the labels on the cans. You must primarily use canned food. This year we are trying to use only cans as a personal challenge.

How is working with cans challenging?
We create a 3D computer model before we build so we can see foresee potential issues, although sometimes that does not always work. We built an infinity symbol that was too narrow at the bottom. It came out fine; we just could not get the ideal proportions. There is a general rule in architecture: if something looks like it’s going to fall, it will probably fall—that’s when you get the I-don’t-think-that’s-gonna-work feel. Some people [focus] more on aesthetic and others on structure, but sometimes you have to make a compromise between the two.

How would you describe your technique?
A certain technique we have established is to lay the cans on their side, which gives the structure a silver finish. This technique allowed us to push the limit of our model structurally and aesthetically. It also gave last year’s shark structure a nice silver finish.

What is the most stressful part of the process?
Depends who you ask. For the architects the fund-raising can be stressful, but from the HR perspective the design part is the most stressful.

So what do you have in store for the competition this year?
This year we’ve teamed up with structural engineering firm John A. Martin Associates. We are going for a deeper message and a more abstract structure to coincide with this year’s location, the Downtown Art Walk. The Title of our piece is “Avoid HUNGER.” The idea is a 6-foot-tall eroded cube where we created a central void.  That void represents the imperfections in our society that allow hunger to exist.  The cube consists of a layering of different cans, which represents the diversity of the different cultures in our world. 

All CANstruction entries will be on public display at the Downtown Art Walk on Thursday, January 10th from 12-10 p.m. and Friday, January 11th from 11 a.m.-7 p.

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