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Building on Sand

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For most of the day Sunday the promises were hard to believe.

Sure, they were architects accustomed to creating things, but this time they were out of their element: on a beach, under the sun, in the sand.

Busily at work, wearing shorts and bikinis, they sounded like the most wishful of thinkers.

“It’s a crash landing of a spacecraft, little aliens will crawl out,” said Phillip Han of Altoon and Porter, holding a bucket of water while his colleagues toted water and shoveled.

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By the afternoon though, Han’s and others’ promises had slowly begun to take shape. And spectators who gathered to watch the works in progress could tell the sand was becoming something--even if they weren’t quite sure what.

“It’s gonna be a whale,” Euni Brown of Northridge said of another creation. “It’s Shamu maybe. Is it Shamu?”

Not quite. That one was the Pillsbury Doughboy, sunbathing on the beach with a radio and a bottle of suntan lotion, a second-place winner in the 16th annual Sand Castle Competition held Sunday at Zuma Beach. Sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the competition raises money for student scholarships. But over the years the gathering has served the dual purpose of providing architects an opportunity to get out of the office and simply have a good time.

“That’s what it’s all about, being together and having fun,” said Joe Davoodzadeh of the Jerde Partnership.

Of course, winning is nice too.

“We’re going for a three-peat,” said Davoodzadeh, whose firm had won the last two years.

“There are a few [architectural] firms that come out each year to duke it out to see who can bring home the big trophy,” said Shaun Jennings, an organizer of the event.

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In spite of the name, sandcastles or buildings of any sort were not the chosen designs of the 15 teams of competitors. Many of the entries had a space theme. One featured Bugs Bunny on Mars, complete with a rover and surfing aliens.

The teams, some with more than 20 participants, spent time enjoying themselves.

Still this was no day at the beach.

Teams prepared weeks in advance. They held meetings to come up with designs. They came to the beach with copies of blueprint-type sketches to hand out to team members.

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“It’s an undertaking,” said Phoebe Yee of HKS Architects Inc. “We’ve got everyone here from partners to vice president to the receptionist.”

The Jerde Partnership has learned a few things over the years.

“We have this secret of soaking the mound first and then doing the sculpting,” Jim Matranga said, shoveling dirt onto a mound. He threw a shovelful on a colleague who promptly responded by emptying his bucket of water on Matranga.

“This keeps me cool,” Matranga said, as if sharing another trick of the trade.

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The competitors had to follow very specific instructions: no motorized tools, no earth moving equipment, no chemicals or explosives. “There was a volcano one year,” Jennings said.

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Those who showed up Sunday played by the rules, bringing only the standard beach digging tools with a couple of twists here and there. There were trowels, perfect for creating the outside of a moon crater, an ice tray, water bottles, plastic spatulas, and large spray devices usually used to dispense pesticides.

The Cuningham Group won the large group division with “Sea Dragon,” a creature found lounging in a pool in Malibu because the beaches were too polluted, said Jonathan Watts.

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“This is something of a commentary,” Watts said, adding that the firm supports Heal the Bay and other such efforts.

The winner of the medium group division was Landmark Entertainment with Alien 3D. The children’s prize went to the Ninjas.

The prize for the winning group was a trophy in the shape of a sandcastle made of . . . what else?

Sand.

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