Canstruction Boston Art Pop-Up Raises Awareness Around Food Insecurity

Canstruction Boston raises hunger awareness in a creative way: teams of engineers, designers, architects, and university students create structures using only canned food. For this year, the competition’s 23rd year, the theme is Heroes vs. Villains.

The purpose of the competition is not only to appreciate the ingenuity and artistic beauty of the structures, but also to give back to the community, as Merrimack Valley Food Bank’s largest single donation. In the spirit of this mission, builders must use primarily cans or packaged foods; no adhesives, glass containers, or supports thicker than a quarter inch are allowed.

Canstruction Boston began in 1995 as a chapter of the original event, which started in New York City in 1993. South Station housed three to four structures that year, and since then, participation has grown to 29 last year alone. For the past seven years, Boston Society of Architects (BSA), Boston Properties, and Canstruction Boston have partnered to make the BSA Space and Atlantic Wharf the assembly location. Around May, the year’s theme is advertised, giving teams a month to submit their Call for Entry. The current space has room for 31 structures; teams are selected first-come first-serve up to this cap. Once admitted, spots are assigned based on the specific demands of the structure.

“Some need electricity, some want to only be viewed from the front,” said Kerry Heckman, chair of Canstruction Boston.

This year’s 21 teams gathered on Saturday, Oct. 6, for build-out day where they brought their months-long plans to fruition. Each team can only have five people working on the structure at one time, for reasons of fairness as well as safety, and spots are limited to 10 feet cubed. Applications are creative: in “The Hero Sandwich” pea bags are stacked to form lettuce leaves, in “Cameron the Fireman” wire holds water bottles in hose formation, and in “The incrEDIBLE” can labels reveal Baby Jack and The Incredibles symbol from a distance. Curved arms, suspended features, and clever supports demonstrate that they are also a feat of engineering.



Voting was in session from Sunday after build-out day until Wednesday at promptly 1 p.m. Anyone can vote through the Facebook album for the People’s Choice Award, tallied by the number of likes each structure gets. Director’s Choice, selected by chairs Heckman and Anna Luciano, and Honorable Mention are local awards. Awards for Best Use of Labels, Best Meal, Structural Ingenuity, Most Cans, and Best Original Design were decided Tuesday by a team of judges and then submitted virtually to the international competition. Amy Pessia, director of Merrimack Valley Food Bank, has the final word on Best Meal. This is the healthiest option. Heckman and Luciano also incorporate judges with an inside look.

“We had a couple teams that unfortunately had to drop out and we reached out to them and asked them if they would like to be judges,” said Heckman. “Last year we had people crawling under structures where they could see how they were built.”

This year “The Red Queen–Off with their Lids!” by Arup + Gensler won both Best Original Design and People’s Choice, at 447 likes. “RUUN! It’s CANzilla!” by AnnBeha Architects + Thornton Tomasetti won Structural Ingenuity and Most Cans with 7,004 cans. “Wile E. CANyote” by Shepley Bulfinch took Best Meal, and Best Use of Labels went to “The incrEDIBLE” by Arrowstreet. These creations will proceed on to the next round. “Groot Out Hunger” by Steffian Bradley Architects got Honorable Mention and “Can’s Greatest Villain, Hunger’s Strongest Hero” by Prellwitz Chilinksi Associates is Director’s Choice.

Canstruction Boston raised 61,225 cans of food this year. This donation lasts for at least a year, because all participants must buy their food new, whereas other donated food may be expired or will expire soon. This allows Merrimack Valley to be strategic with the donation to fit the needs of the people they serve. Although deconstruction day is Oct. 27, near Thanksgiving and the holidays, this is peak donation time for many people and organizations.

“Everyone does a canned food drive,” said Luciano

In contrast, few think of the hungry when they are out enjoying summer. This is where Canstruction’s donation comes into play.

“The really big thing is kids are in school, all day long, and in the summer these kids are home and now their parents are struggling to feed them three times a day,” said Heckman.

Once donated to Merrimack, the food reaches 22 cities through food pantries, kitchens, summer programs where people pack meals for kids, and more. The energy in the air as teams bring their heroes and villains to life is not one where they have forgotten the primary purpose of their work.

“You go downstairs and our food fills the entire lower level,” said Heckman. “And the teams all understand that and they know why they’re doing it.”

Featured Image by Keely Dickes / For The Heights