Models of buildings made notorious through disaster have been the stock in trade of New York product design studio Boym

There are a few architectural sites that are really embedded in the world’s consciousness: the Louvre, Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids — we’re all familiar with this list.

But there’s another we’re less comfortable with: the World Trade Centre, Chernobyl, the Golden Mosque in Samarra. These are a different kind of icon that is rarely celebrated. Yet this is exactly what New York based product design studio Boym Partners has been doing since 1997, winning an international fan base with its souvenirs of an alternative architectural history.

First there was Missing Monuments, a series of miniature souvenirs of buildings that were never built or no longer exist. Then came Buildings of Disaster, which features darkly humorous bonded metal miniatures of buildings from the twin towers to Chernobyl, via the Texas book depository and the Golden Mosque.

Boym Partners’ Recession Souvenirs range of unbuilt towers includes Rogers’ Cheesegrater (left) and Foster’s Russia Tower (centre).
Boym Partners’ Recession Souvenirs range of unbuilt towers includes Rogers’ Cheesegrater (left) and Foster’s Russia Tower (centre).

“The idea is to look at things that are not necessarily distinguished by scholarly merit, by aesthetics, by architectural historians or theoreticians, but rather by populist involvement and how people relate to those sites,” says Constantin Boym, who founded the studio in 1986.

“Did I expect them to be so popular? No. Obviously they fulfilled some need in people’s psyche. That need for collecting, owning and relating to a group of special pieces apparently has not been addressed in product design.”

Now 54, Russian-born Constantin Boym originally trained as an architect at the Moscow Architectural Institute, practising in the US for a few years before leaving the profession to study design at the Domus Academy in Milan. His partner Laurene Boym, 40, joined the studio in 1995, after completing a year as designer in residence at the Smithsonian’s Cooper Hewitt design museum as well as helping to found the Association of Women Industrial Designers.

“The idea of building, of architectonics and of architecture in general very much informs our design process. We believe that big things and little things have inherent relationships, that they are built along the same way and that they reference each other,” says Constantin.

This year the studio was the winner in the product design category of the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s National Design Awards and in July the Buildings of Disaster will be shown as a group for the first time as part of the V&A’s Telling Tales Exhibition.

But times have changed since Boym Partners first came up with the idea of the architectural souvenir. Three years ago, things were looking rosy. Skyscrapers were mushrooming all over the world. Dubai was in a race with itself to build the tallest ever, Russia was planning a virulent rash of them and they were popping up across Asia in the most unexpected places.

And then it all came to a juddering halt. Temporary delays became indefinite as the downturn became the global economic crisis and investors ran out of money. For architects, stalled skyscraper projects like Norman Foster’s Russia Tower and Richard Roger’s Leadenhall Tower, also known as the cheese grater, have become symbols of the recession. Which makes them the natural subject for Boym’s next series.

“This recession is as much psychological as it is economical. Everybody talks about it, it’s in the air. So to find some kind of material manifestation for that theme, we felt that these skyscrapers, which suddenly have been put on hold, somehow represent the architectural equivalent of a recession souvenir.

“It’s a little bit in line with missing monuments, the buildings that do not exist, but in this case there is an additional ironic dimension because some of them are not necessarily going to be missed very much.”

Boym’s bonded metal miniature of the World Trade Centre
Boym’s bonded metal miniature of the World Trade Centre

Boym’s model  of Alma tunnel, where Princess Diana met her death
Boym’s model of Alma tunnel, where Princess Diana met her death

Boyn’s metal miniature Chernobyl power station
Boyn’s metal miniature Chernobyl power station

Topics