Diminutive disaster

Constantin Boym talks about what the 20th century taught him about the power of the miniature and memory.

In 1997 Constantin and Laurene Boym did not expect the unprecedented emotional demand that the Souvenirs for the End of the Century series would generate. The plan was to make limited-edition runs of commemorative miniatures that would be available annually until 2000. It's now 2008 and they've just released their newest addition - the Golden Mosque in Samarra.

"The war in Iraq prompted me to make the Golden Mosque in Samarra, the most notable architectural victim of sectarian violence there. In the week following the explosion, 168 mosques were attacked or destroyed in reprisals," says Constantin Boym.

Since its birth, the tone of Souvenirs for the End of the Century has changed. From 1997 to 2000, it was a provocative design project that proposed an unusual historical take on the 20th century with busts of Duchamp and Mies van der Rohe commemorated alongside Bill Clinton's sex scandal and the Oklahoma City Bombing. As per plan, the project was shelved at the turn of the millennium.     

"The most controversial - and the most successful - among the souvenirs was a collection called Buildings of Disaster, the monuments of tragic or terrible events. Some of these buildings may have been prized architectural landmarks, others non-descript anonymous structures. But disaster changes everything. The images of burning or exploded buildings make a different, populist history of architecture, one based on emotional involvement rather than on scholarly appreciation," explains Boym.

It is probably this emotional history of architecture that sparked the huge demand for the souvenirs following September 11, 2001. "To my amazement, we got inundated with requests for the souvenirs, specifically for our old sold-out miniature of the 1993 World Trade Centre explosion. Orders came even from former occupants of the Twin Towers who survived the deadly attack. Obviously, there was a real emotional need there, a need that had to be fulfilled. After much hesitation and soul-searching, we made a decision to reissue the World Trade Centre miniature as a fund-raising effort, donating the proceeds to charity. Later that year, we produced the September 11 Memorial Set, which included a new miniature of the centre, and one of the Pentagon," Boym explains.
Additions to the Buildings of Disaster series now continue, including the New Orleans Superdome, Neverland Ranch and the Alma Tunnel. "The focus now has changed a little bit. There used to be monks in medieval monasteries who patiently recorded all events that took place during their lifetime. For us, it is a little bit similar; we are recording the major dramas and tragedies of history as they unfold. Why only tragedies? Because this is what makes news, and ultimately this is what makes history," Boym goes on.

The Boyms's newest project, Babel Blocks, is also linked to tragedy and miniature. "Religion is one of the main themes of our time, and the major source of all present conflicts. The Babel Blocks project looks into different religions and cultures, and the way they coexist together in New York, or any other big city of today," Boym explains.
Currently the series constitutes five miniature wooden souvenirs of New York's multi-ethnic population, with another five due for release this year. These human mementos have been personalised with names - Moishe, Nafisa, Mary, Chen and Jose - and allocated Myspace pages. "Even though we are 'dressed' differently, we are all made of identical blocks," intones the packaging like a parable.

Nonetheless, as the Boyms have discovered through the Buildings of Disaster, there's no predicting how a culture will end up using the designs. "People put their own meaning on to miniatures, and they find their own personal ways to use them as material for memories or memorials," says Boym.

Website: www.boym.com

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