RICHARD TENGUERIAN'S portfolio reads like A History of Architecture Since 1975. The New York–based model-maker has long collaborated with some of architecture's most iconic figures, including Aldo Rossi, Bernard Tschumi, Philip Johnson, Emilio Ambasz, and Robert A.M. Stern, and with firms such as HOK, FXFowle, Kohn Pedersen Fox, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.
Intent on becoming an architect, the young Tenguerian quickly discovered his talent for fabricating models, picking up a job during high school making models for an architectural office. He has been doing it ever since, starting his own firm, Cubic Dimension, in 1989.
“When someone shows me a drawing, I see the finished product,” he says. “I get the vision.”
His basement office near New York's Astor Place maintains a healthy buzz. For his interview with ARCHITECT, he suggested meeting on a Saturday morning so that the office would be without distraction. But even then—one of the last sunny days of summer—10 people could be found feverishly working. Walking through the studio, Tenguerian seamlessly shifts from the conversation to commenting on the work happening around him (“Make sure you cut that piece there,” and, “Don't forget to replace this section”) without losing focus.
Everything he does is custom-made. From the paint—which he mixes for each project, never sharing shades between clients—to the wooden cases that house the finished models, he fabricates each part of every project individually.
He keeps between 12 and 16 people on staff, each with a particular specialty. “Every model is unique, so I bring on people who can work with specific sets of challenges—paint color, carpentry, technology, or interpreting architectural drawings.”
“I'm the conductor now,” he says. “I'm no longer in the orchestra.” But his deference belies the personal investment he puts into each project, and he repeatedly notes what has quickly become obvious: “I put my heart into these projects.” He treats each model not only as an important architectural document, but also as a work of art. Letters from clients speak of him as a “poet,” a “master-builder,” and an “artist.” Rafael Moneo once shipped a model of Avery Fisher Hall (made by another model-maker) to New York, and when it became damaged in the process, the architect called Tenguerian to fix it. Tenguerian agreed and built a new model, later refusing payment. Flipping through a portfolio of souvenirs, he pulls out a personal check from Moneo, which he never cashed. “That project wasn't about money. It was about architecture and service.”
Kenneth Drucker, senior principal and director of design at HOK, has worked with Tenguerian since 1985. “He's always been a model-maker of first choice,” explains Drucker. “He's helped us win competitions, since his models are very persuasive tools in winning projects. His work is art.”
The discipline of model-making, like architecture, has been completely redefined over the past few years by emerging technologies and digital practices. Models now link with interactive computer screens, light on command, and involve the challenging forms of contemporary architecture. Methods of fabrication have changed too, most notably with laser-cutting and 3-D printing. An artisan though he may be, Tenguerian is quick to incorporate emerging technologies into his craft, expanding the possibilities of his work. “You can't fudge a physical model,” Tenguerian explains. “With software, you can change it as you go, but with a model, everything shows.”
Tenguerian was trained as an architect, at Pratt Institute, and he approaches his work as an architect. “There are three components to the design process: the architect, the client, and the physical model,” Tenguerian explains. “If you take one element away, things collapse.” This is a point backed up by a stack of photos showing architects and clients with his models, pointing, craning necks, and discussing.