Skip To Main Content

Sculptures That Give Back

With Thanksgiving approaching, Class 1 has turned its attention more closely to the importance of gratitude. As the students explore what they are grateful for in their own lives, they are also learning about people who are less fortunate, and ways to support them with kindness and compassion.

Early on a Friday morning, all three sections of Class 1 gathered on the rug in Room 2A3, eager to hear from three special visitors who participated in a one-of-a-kind project that provides food to hungry children and adults throughout New York City. 

The students learned that the visitors, Jimmy Chao, Vanessa Tom and Brandon Wang, recently competed in a charitable design competition called “Canstruction,” through their Manhattan-based firm, Dattner Architects.

Founded in 1992 by the Society for Design Administration New York Chapter, Canstruction has grown into a spectacular, worldwide design/build competition and a terrific opportunity every year for scores of architectural and design companies to showcase their creative talents for the greater good. 

Although comprising a variety of shapes, patterns and color schemes, all of the structures entered into Canstruction share one essential ingredient: “They are completely made out of cans of food!” exclaimed Ms. Tom, adding that the cans are ultimately donated to the needy. She explained that in the local arm of the competition, Canstruction New York, once the structures are taken apart, the cans will be delivered to City Harvest (, the city’s largest food-rescue organization, for food pantries, soup kitchens and community partners across the five boroughs. 

This year, 31 teams of architects, engineers, contractors and students – including the team from Dattner Architects – competed in New York. Their giant, awe-inspiring creations, comprising more than 65,000 pounds of food, are on public display for two weeks (November 7-21) at Brookfield Place in Lower Manhattan.

As Mr. Wang clicked through a series of bright slides on the classroom smart board, Mr. Chao and Ms. Tom told the captivating story of their team’s journey from initial ideas to a dazzling finished product. The students leaned forward, absorbing every word.

“We’re always really excited by the design. It can be anything you can imagine,” said Mr. Chao, pointing to a slide with six unique images, including a Rubik’s Cube, a bowl of dumplings and a swirling section of ocean. In the end, the team chose the ocean design because they “thought it would be fun to play with something that wasn’t an actual object.” They named their sculpture “Waves of Color.”

To create the design, the visitors described an invigorating, four-month-long process that began with hand-sketched drawings, which were then transferred to a computer. Next, after conducting “can research” at grocery stores, the team settled on identically sized cans of red beans, black beans, tomato paste and chili, offering a rainbow of colors. 

At “Build Night” on November 6, all 31 New York teams gathered together to build their sculptures. Assisted by families and friends, the Dattner team spent several focused hours bringing their design to life. Carefully, they layered cans onto multi-tiered platforms, which were secured by thin sheets of plywood. As the layers began to take shape, “we could start to see the colors changing!” said Ms. Tom.

In the end, the magnificent Waves of Color, which measures just under five feet tall, encompassed 13 layers and 3,000 cans, which will provide 2,500 hungry New Yorkers with much-needed sustenance.

After answering a host of questions from the curious students, the special visitors wrapped up their lively and informative presentation and headed back to their jobs at Dattner Architects. “Now we’re going to see the sculptures in person,” announced Class 1 Head Teacher Vanity David.

With that, the students slipped on their jackets and walked to waiting school buses. For the next two hours, they took in the extraordinary Canstruction exhibition at Brookfield Place, a fitting addition to their thoughtful conversations around gratitude and compassion.