John Di Lauro knelt on the beach and, ever so gently, carved at the masterpiece before him, a wondrous castle of sweeping curves, finely shaped stairs, windows and spires. With the stainless steel blade of his knife, he slowly widened the opening beneath an arch of sand.
"Let's see how far we can go."
Six inches, seven, eight, nine--the span slowly grew longer, improbably wide. Then in a sudden WHUMPF, the arch--and half of Di Lauro's castle--collapsed on his hand.
"Now we know."
Di Lauro, 27, an architect with Klages, Carter, Vale & Partners of Costa Mesa, makes a living pushing materials to the limits of their strength. But on the beach at Corona del Mar on Sunday, he and about 40 others from his profession found themselves on unfirm ground.
Representing more than a dozen Orange County architectural firms, they came to learn how to build sandcastles. Not the dribble castles of childhood, but spectacular structures daring, clever, and intricate enough to win the 1989 Invitational Sandcastle Competition to be held on the beach Oct. 1.
Sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the contest will be the first in the county to feature teams led exclusively by professional architects. The Sunday workshop was one of two held this summer to school contestants in the fundamentals of sandcastle construction.
Some of the lessons involved a lot of sophisticated architectural concepts: water-to-sand ratio, degree of compaction, adherence.
Others were more basic.
"Let me give you some tips on how to shovel," said Kent Trollen, one of the workshop organizers, to a crowd of eager students who just had besmirched their fellows in a cross-fire of heaved sand.
Trollen, a Newport Beach architect and professional sandcastle builder, will be the "beach master" for the Oct. 1 contest, making sure that about 30 teams along a quarter-mile of beach comply with the rules and spirit of the competition.
The contest rules are simple. Only sand and water--no bonding agents--can be used. Only 12 people can be in a team's 20-foot-by-20-foot building site at a time. Others can be enlisted, however, to carry buckets of ocean water to the building site. Hundreds of buckets are needed to create a large structure.
"I had one group in a workshop bring a gasoline-powered water pump and a hose so they wouldn't have to carry water," Trollen said. The contest rules bar any use of gasoline or electrical equipment.
The first half of Sunday's workshop focused on how to get the sand into a form that can be carved or shaped.
"The sand here isn't the best," Trollen said. "It has larger grains that don't adhere as well as sand at other beaches, like Seal Beach. That makes it harder to do vertical fades and push-throughs. That's why it's important to make sure you've got the right amount of water and pack it down right."
To build taller structures, the contestants learned how to stack a series of smaller molds, one atop another like the terraced layers of a wedding cake.
Jeff Poland, a Newport Beach architect and a contest organizer, told a group of neophyte builders that organization and planning are the keys to success.
"You can build something 16 feet high, but you've got to think out the order of your work. You've got to start work from the top down, otherwise you won't be able to reach it later. And everybody has got to work in concert.
Nearby, four people, each using a shovel as lever, tried to pry a 30-gallon trash can mold off the sand packed inside. At first, it began to move up and away from the sand. But one of the four pushed too hard. The form tilted and sand inside spilled out in a heap.
Once the builders had formed their blocks of sand, they began to shape their creations with hands, cement trowels and thin-bladed palette knives. The carvers quickly divided into two types: sculptors and scratchers, the latter by far the larger group.
A few of the would-be builders made bold, aggressive slashes in their sand blocks, hewing quickly to some imagined shape. Most of the rest picked and nicked gingerly.
Even though the contestants are architects or engineers and familiar with a wide range of materials, sand is a mystery to most of them, said contest organizer Poland.
"In their minds, sand is such a fragile thing. That's what we're trying to show them in the workshop: They have to push the sand to the point that it fails, so they know how far they can go in their designs."
Poland, a professional sandcastle builder, knows how far sand can be pushed. He and colleague Trollen were part of the team that built a 53-foot, 3-inch sandcastle in Florida three years ago. "It's in the Guiness Book of Records," Poland said proudly.
As the workshop progressed and team members gained experience in the do's and don'ts of sand building, they began to consider possible designs for their contest entries.
One team, a group of six people hastily assembled last week by architect Di Lauro, sat huddled in a circle on the beach, sketching ideas in the sand.
"I have no idea what we'll build. Could be a building, but maybe not. Could resemble a building, but then again, maybe not. Toughest part, though, will be organizing these people," he said, to good-natured groans from the group.
The team considered humorous designs: a fat man slouched on a couch watching TV or fish sunbathing on a beach while humans swam in the water.
They reached no consensus and agreed to fax designs among the five architectural offices they represent during the weeks before the contest.
Despite the indecision, team member Norman Lei, 26, an architect with the firm of Pekarek and Crandall in Laguna Beach, overflowed with confidence.
"We're going to win this. I can say that with certainty. We'll have a fabulous top-secret design. And I'll go on to become a professional sandcastle builder and make a lot of money."
And what will his job be on the winning team?