Boym Partners, Doha, Qatar

To move the studio of Boym Partners from New York City to Doha, Qatar, would seem an act of sacrilege, like relocating Ai Weiwei from China to Portland, Oregon, or Ed Ruscha from Los Angeles to Munich. After all, as co-principals of the New York–based firm since 1995, Constantin and Laurene Leon Boym have made their mark in part by commenting on the cultural iconography of American life. And yet a year ago, the couple quit their DUMBO studio, picked up their 14-year-old son Bobby and their cat Ozzy, and moved everything into a high-rise apartment that sits 17 floors above the Doha Bay. The occasion was Constantin’s being named director of graduate design studies at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, but in the year since their arrival, it’s become clear that their work there is not just about getting a fledgling design program off the ground but rather about helping create a whole design culture from scratch. “Design here is still largely considered to be a more decorative, applied discipline,” Constantin told me via Skype from the new studio last week. “You decorate a hotel, a restaurant, or a villa. Design as a critical tool for exploration doesn’t really exist.” Adds Laurene: “You have to remember that people lived in tents in this very spot 20 years ago, and now we have a W Hotel across the street.”

When they first arrived, the Boyms were intoxicated by the novelty of it all. A mere three hours from both India and Africa, Laurene could take jaunts to visit markets and seek out craftsmen who would help create the studio’s new projects. With a 20-minute daily drive among palm trees and skyscrapers to his office in Doha’s Education City — the cluster of American universities abroad that sits on Doha’s outskirts — Constantin at first felt as if he’d landed in Miami Beach. And the apartment and studio were huge. “We have a bathroom for our cat,” Laurene jokes. From their window, all of the contrasts of Doha are immediately apparent: “Old and new, natural and artificial, empty and dense, and above all, something under construction at all times,” says Constantin. “The population of the city jumped from 800,000 to 1.3 million in less then five years; this number is supposed to double by the year 2022. And note another typical feature [in the photo above], the buses: They bring the mostly Indian construction workers in for the day, and take them out of the city at night. Where to? Nobody knows.”

Interior view, the Boyms’ studio

As the novelty has worn off, the two have begun to feel a bit of cultural isolation, but they’ve begun harnessing that ambivalent perspective into their new work, something that Constantin is tentatively calling East Modernism. They hope to debut that work in the form of an exhibition next year in Doha. “The idea wasn’t to move to a different location and continue doing exactly the same thing. The idea was to promote the kind of design that we do through education and our own projects. So the new work represents a kind of modernism built on the foundation of this Arabic culture,” he explains. “Just like Postmodernism, it’s something ironic and critical and full of many different meanings — a little bit funny, just like life here. It’s going to be the first exhibition of critical, conceptual design in the state of Qatar.” Officially, Constantin’s post at the university was only contracted for a year, but the couple recently signed on for at least one more, which means they’ll be there to see off the first graduates from the VCU program — in essence, the first generation of Qatar designers. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why are you doing this?’” muses Constantin. “But think of a theater director. The director isn’t on stage, people don’t see him, and they don’t know what he does. He expresses himself through other people’s talents, through music, stage designers, actors. That’s how they create a world. For me, it’s a bit like this. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get an Oscar.”

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