By Aram Arkun
NEW YORK — Architectural model-making requires the vision of an artist and the skill of a craftsman. It has been practiced for centuries, but in recent years technological advances have transformed it greatly. Despite the demanding combination of skills required, most master model- makers do not have a formal university education in this field and come to it in different ways.
Richard Dikran Tenguerian, based in New York City, is one of a small group of elite practitioners in this field whose services are in demand throughout the world. Over the decades he has produced so many projects that it is hard even for him to keep track of them all. His models have been integral to the success of the building of the new Yankee Stadium, the South Street Seaport Museum and interior work for Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, all in New York City; the Comcast Center, the tallest building in Philadelphia and many other projects throughout the United States. He has worked with American and foreign architects on international projects in places like Singapore, Taiwan, Moscow, Paris, Dubai, Japan, Kuwait City, Tabriz, Saudi Arabia (the Kingdom Center), various parts of Latin America and South Korea (the Samsung Center). Many of these projects are models of headquarters for large corporations or shopping centers. Tenguerian has worked with and has been praised by prominent architects such as Philip Johnson, Bernard Tschumi, Robert Venturi, Aldo Rossi, Robert A. M. Stern and Emilio Ambasz, as well as many major architectural firms.
For some projects he only needs to prepare relatively small sections of a building, like part of one wall, one tower, interiors or exteriors, while in other cases he must prepare an entire building or a huge complex, with landscaping. The amount of details reproduced depend on the size and nature of the project. Some models are built to help in the development of the idea for an architectural project, while others are used to sell the project to investors or buyers.
What Tenguerian does sounds like fun, but is hard work. He says that people always tell him “you are lucky — you are a grownup still playing with toys. But it is not that simple. There are not many model- makers around, and this is for a reason. The work requires long hours and the readiness to face constant pressure, deadlines and stress. Architects challenge you to make changes, and you must be ready for any surprise. Vacations may get canceled. You have to love this profession and have it in your blood.” It should be added that unlike most toys, the models that Tenguerian builds can range in cost from the tens to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Tenguerian, descended from a family of Ottoman-Armenian notables, grew up in Aleppo and benefited from parents who provided a fertile artistic environment. As partial evidence, one of his brothers, Haroutioun, became a sculptor.
Richard Tenguerian recalled, “My father was an architectural draftsman and he used to sculpt and paint. My mother was a fashion designer. She used to sew and do creative things. When I was growing up, I was always exposed to different media, and it was all about doing things by hand.”
He was one of those lucky few who understand early in life where their talents and desires intersect: “Since my childhood, I knew I would be doing something related to building and art. I was focused. I
knew what my future would be. That is why I concentrated all my energy to achieve my goals.”
Tenguerian spent his high school summers and then the year following graduation, working in Beirut as an intern in an architectural firm, where he already began working on models. Afterwards, in 1975, he went to study for a year in Soviet Armenia. It was a free education, but Tenguerian felt uncomfortable with the expectations there: “I took my camera and sketchbook in my free time to go to towns and sketch churches, but the university wanted me to be active in political life.”
Tenguerian had aunts in New York, and, feeling that he could accomplish more in the United States, he went to attend Pratt Institute and further his knowledge of architecture.
In the US, when he began working for architects to make money, they noted his talent at model making and kept him busy in this field. Many of his professors had their own offices and Tenguerian quickly made connections with big architectural firms. Everybody pushed him to make models for them, but he had just graduated as an architect and thought he should practice as one. He said this was a difficult time: “It took me two years of struggle to make up my mind as to what I wanted to do. Finally, I decided that if everybody wants me to stay with models, why should I go against the flow? I saw that there was a demand for my skills as a model maker.” So he opened his own firm.
It eventually evolved into Tenguerian Architectural Models, a firm that today has some 20 full- and part-time employees located in Manhattan. There are only four or five such modeling firms in New York City. As the firm grew, the role Tenguerian played changed. At first he himself was the craftsman building the models, but now, he compares himself more to a conductor of an orchestra. His employees all specialize in one aspect or another of the work and at his firm, prepare everything from specially- matched color paints to lifelike windows and building structures. Tenguerian explained, “It is practically a school here. You don’t find somebody already skilled and doing this work that you can hire. They start working and as they progress, I teach one and that one teaches the next person.”
Each project Tenguerian works on is unique. He said that “there is no production line, because modeling is like making original art work. The challenge and creativity is coming up with a solution, a shortcut, to representing something. As a professional, when you don’t have complete information and the design is still being developed, and you are given sketches, you have to be ready to be flexible. You have to see the bigger picture and put the project together in a limited amount of time. What is important is creativity, experience, being organized, and being able to realize others’ ideas in three dimensions.”
Tenguerian started working in the older traditional hands-on approach, but also adopted all the new tools that developments in computer technology offer. This offers him the advantage of being able to use the most appropriate and cost-effective approach in building a model, as well as different insights into the building process. He pointed out that “new graduates haven’t had practice as craftsmen. It is always good to ride a bus on which you know the driver also fix things as a mechanic.”
Tenguerian’s educational background, with a degree in architecture and an understanding of design, also distinguishes him from many of his competitors, as it gives him greater flexibility in the process of model development. He said, “Some model-makers don’t have that and only make the models as craftsmen, so they can’t see the bigger picture. The architects then have to babysit the model-maker to get him to build what they want. In the model-making profession, you don’t receive 100 percent of the information. You have to understand what is going on and adjust. If you see something wrong, you have to tell the architect there is unfinished business here. This helps establish trust between me and the architects.”
When work is slower than usual due to the recession, Tenguerian and his firm take on different types of modeling projects. Tenguerian and his men have the ability to prepare nearly any type of three- dimensional model. For example, during my recent visit to his studio, one of his employees was preparing a prototype for a toy using magnets.
Tenguerian is active with his family in Armenian community life. He is very proud of his Armenian background, especially because of the old and advanced traditions of Armenian architecture. He designed (and built models for) St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in White Plains, NY, together with Vatche Aslanian, as a way of honoring his heritage. He also was impressed about how scattered and inaccessible many of the old Armenian churches in Turkey, Armenia, and Iran are. To partially remedy this, so that the world learns more about these architectural marvels, and also preserve some of them which have been subject to partial or complete destruction.
Tenguerian hopes one day to be able to construct accurate models for each one of them, using the same scale, and have them all displayed in one place.