Gingerbread Architecture at Caroline Collective

This has been a year for non-traditional gingerbread houses in Houston. The gingerbread dog houses at Voice kicked off the season earlier this month, and Caroline Collective all but finished it off with its first annual Gingerbread Build-Off.

The concept came from Caroline Collective co-founder Ned Dodington, who works with the Architecture Center of Houston (ArCH) and was inspired by the Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architects' yearly sandcastle contest on Galveston Island that has grown over time from a simple competition among friends to a heavily attended and highly competitive building contest. And just as the sandcastle competition results in massive yet ephemeral creations, perhaps the gingerbread house contest will -- in time -- become similarly popular. Matthew Wettergreen, Caroline Collective's other co-founder, has different yet dovetailing hopes for the contest: "We loved the idea of combining food and architecture, something not a lot of people are doing these days. And instead of passively educating, we're actively having fun and exercising creativity."

Starting at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning, teams of architects and engineers set about crafting the most intricate -- and structurally sound, of course -- houses from the ingredients that were provided by Caroline Collective. Each team was allowed to bring in other ingredients and tools, as long as each component of the house was edible. Some teams took this allowance a bit further than others; one intense-looking team was spotted with a soldering iron and welding mask.

Jen Mathis, an artist with a background in architecture, created what was dubbed "Santa's Florida Home" with her team. Using mitre boxes, tiny saws, drafter's rulers and several cartons of frosting as adhesive, their post-modern gingerbread home sprung from a waterfront made of blue sour candy strips. These people weren't messing around.

After four hours had passed, the gingerbread houses -- completed or not -- were presented to a panel of judges, two of whom were professional architects (the other was me, who's willing to judge all things edible). Houses were judged on strict criteria of innovation, structural integrity, use of available resources and overall aesthetics.

Diana Jung Kim, a fashion and jewelry artist with a keen interest in baking, and Forrest Camp Flanagan with TX/RX Labs won first place with their post-apocalyptic gingerbread forest, appropriately termed "Nuclear Winter." The landscape was dominated by a blown-out gingerbread house with broken windows (made of thin sheets of caramelized sugar water) and vegetation which had survived the nuclear blast. Trees made of macaroons, coconut shavings and sprigs of thyme ("mutant thyme trees," Flanagan called them) made for a remarkably Christmas-like visage, despite the destruction.

When the winner was announced, a loud and giddy squeal was heard from Kim: "Are you kidding me? Based on what?" Grinning ear to ear, the couple happily accepted first place despite seeming somewhat baffled that a post-apocalyptic landscape had won a holiday competition.

Second place went to "Santa's Florida Home" while a tie for third place went to "House of Cards" -- playing cards made from gingerbread and frosting -- and "Alienz," a pyramid with graham cracker sand and a Nile River made from sour candy strips.

Want to check out the winning houses for yourself? The top four houses will be on display at the Architecture Center of Houston, December 21 through December 23.

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Katharine Shilcutt