Neverland Ranch, the California residence of Michael Jackson, is not a conventional architectural icon. But downsized to a height of 2 inches and limited to an edition of 500 cast-metal likenesses, the infamous idyll demands its place in history.
The miniature, with its vaguely mansard roof and chateau-sized parterre of a clock, has been rendered monumental—not for intrinsic design values or any epic marriage of form and function, but because television cameras were drawn there by the performer's legal troubles. A tragic storyline and images on the nightly news made an inconsequential design—specifically, the Neverland train station, a knockoff of one constructed at Disneyland in 1955—more widely known than Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye could ever hope to be. In a mediacentric age, dark architecture casts the longer shadow.
That is the premise behind Buildings of Disaster, the widely acclaimed collection of alternative souvenirs created by Constantin Boym, a Russian-born New York industrial designer, and his wife, Laurene Leon Boym. Neverland is the latest addition to a radical hierarchy of great works. Since 1998, Boym has chosen to honor buildings as symbols of political or human catastrophe rather than for brilliant form or important client.
The list began with Chernobyl, the Texas School Book Depository, the Watergate complex, and the Unabomber Cabin. A miniature Oklahoma City federal building, its center cratered by a bomb blast, was the first to freeze-frame the impact of terrorism. After Sept. 11, Boym sculpted the Twin Towers scarred by attack, but standing, and a gouged Pentagon. Proceeds went to relief funds.
The designer offers no moral, only the observation that media saturation can turn unexceptional buildings into emotion-laden monuments. Boym began to explore the relationship of architecture to memory in 1995 with Missing Monuments, a set of 18 structures lost or never built. Tiny homages honor Solomon's Temple, New York's Penn Station, London's Crystal Palace, and a Stalinesque fantasy, the Palace of the Soviets.
The Buildings of Disaster project emerged as a response to the end of the tumultuous 20th century. Boym drew inspiration from media repetition, as did Andy Warhol in his own disaster series. Boym acknowledges “one common precedent” but says, “My buildings are commentary not so much on disaster, but on the reflection on the disaster. They have a different sensibility.”
As the series approaches its 10th anniversary in 2008, Boym is pondering “how to continue this collection—and whether to continue.” But Neverland was a natural. “It's a recognizable icon,” he says, “and it is also very much about architecture.”
The price of destiny: A numbered miniature costs $110 at select galleries or from the designer at www.boym.com.