Sixteen years ago, a New York architecture firm associate named Cheri Melillo had an idea for a design-build competition to raise awareness of hunger, with sculptures constructed entirely of canned food. At the end of the exhibit, all the cans are donated, labels intact, to food programs for the needy. Canstruction, as it?s called, is now in more than 100 cities in North America and several other countries. Organizers say that since the first competition was held in three cities in 1993, 4,500 metric tons of food have been donated to anti-hunger programs through Canstruction. The suggested price of admission for the public is a can of food.

It's the end of a workday when the teams spread out their plans, and begin unpacking: 160,000 cans of beans, tomatoes, tuna, sardines, soup, and other foods. More than 40 architecture and engineering firms are competing in the Canstruction competition at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center. ?Our project is called ?Torque for Hunger, said Rand Engineering?s Young Suh as his team unpacked its building blocks, a few thousand cans of a vitamin-fortified milk drink. With them, Suh said, the engineers planned to construct a homage to the gigantic, curved-wall metal works of sculptor Richard Serra.

Other than full cans of food, only tape, thin layers of masonite, and steel guide wires may be used by Canstruction builders, who have brought plans for sculptures ranging from a suspension bridge to a giant donut. All must be up by the next morning, when the Winter Garden reopens and the show will be on public view.

Slowly, the sculptures rise, can by can.  By around nine o?clock, the Richard Serra imitation is impressively curved and leaning outwards from its base in all directions. Somehow, it looks not at all precarious. ?This is the very top level, so as soon as we put a row up here, that's going to be it,? Suh says, pointing to the top. ?So, 17 rows of cans.? He has a structural engineer?s confidence about his work?s stability. ?It will stand up. I could stand on the top and it will stand up,? he says.

?Every year at least one or two of them will fall,? says a more skeptical observer, architect Brian Ferrier, who is volunteering this year as Canstruction New York?s ?building inspector.? Wearing a hard-hat and carrying a clipboard, Ferrier monitors the teams to make sure that they are following the rules. ?So, if there is an entry that has a serious violation, we?ll write it up. There are a couple of different rules that are kind of major. One is that you?re not allowed to use anything thicker than a quarter of an inch [about a half-centimeter] as a level. Let?s see -- you?re only supposed to have about five people working on it at a time, though that?s loosely enforced.?

Many of the teams, some with fresh replacement members, will work all night -- or what might just feel like all night. One team called on members to help brace the roof of its model of Beijing's famous Central China TV building. ?Cranberry sauce is rather dense!? complained one woman who was helping to hold up the canned roof.

Canstruction spokeswoman Leah Suzanne Kaplan says that New York's hunger problem is growing as the economy sinks.  Feeding programs and food pantries like New York?s City Harvest now help sustain one in four city residents. ?The shelves are bare, they need this desperately. So all the food that's being put together here tonight, all the food that comes in from the public, all goes to City Harvest to help replenish the shelves of the food banks and the food pantries,? Kaplan said.

By the next day, not a can is out of place, and all of the more than 40 sculptures are still standing, including the donut, the Beijing model, and the suspension bridge. In another room, the head of Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps seems to rise out of a shining pool.

A jury meets to choose the winners. A sculpture modeled on Constantin Brancusi's ?Sleeping Muse,? a woman's dreaming face, is the favorite. It's made of gold-colored sardine cans. ?The Seafarer,? a sculpture of a boat with wind-filled sails, wins the award for structural ingenuity. ?Swan Cantata,? made solely of Swanson canned food, wins the best-use-of-labels award.  Honorable mentions go to ?Torque for Hunger,? and to a black-and-white figural sculpture titled ?United at Last.? And the jury?s choice for ?best meal,? is ?CAN-da End Hunger,? a sculpture of a giant panda sitting in a bamboo forest.

?The bear is made out of tuna cans, and the bamboo stalks are made out of Amy's Organic Soup cans,? said team member Derris James. ?You can actually push against them and they'll sway, so they won't fall down.?