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Inside the Miniature World of Architectural Model Makers

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Richard Tenguerian, with a model of 5 Riverside Center in his studio. Photos by Max Touhey, unless noted.

In photos pinned up on the walls of his workshop and office, Richard Tenguerian stands like a giant among some of New York's most famous buildings. He leans into Yankee Stadium. He looks up at towers, which reflect his image. He bear hugs skyscrapers, lifting them off of their bases. Tenguerian, of course, is a normal-sized man, and the King Kong imagery is merely a byproduct of his profession: architectural model making. But the photos hold symbolic value as well, as Tenguerian is one of New York's most well-respected model makers—a giant in the field, you could say.

Tenguerian Architectural Models, which occupies a basement space on Lafayette Street in Noho, has always done pretty well for itself, but the post-recession years have brought in several high profile projects, ranging from Hudson Yards to Cast Iron House to the Abbottabad compound where Osama bin Laden was killed. "I felt like I was a little guy playing with toys," Tenguerian said, reflecting on how his view on his career had changed since the Abbottabad commission. "Now, I feel like I'm a big shot."

[Inside Tenguerian's studio. Photos by Max Touhey.]

Tenguerian certainly isn't the only one to find success in the small and wondrous industry of model making. Roughly four to five model-making firms dominate in New York City, which in turn makes them some of the best in the world; each has done international work, receiving commissions to build models for Israel, Monaco, Canada, and Singapore, among others. In this unlikely renaissance for the craft—an era in which "starchitecture" and the booming luxury real estate market coincide with 3D-printing technology and the digitization of, well, everything—firms like Radii Inc. and Kennedy Fabrications have become well-recognized names in the architecture and design realms, if only through word-of-mouth communication.

The five model makers that Curbed spoke with said the field remains uncrowded because no one really knows what the job entails, and therefore, few are prepared to do it. Model making has a design component, surely, as all model makers interviewed were trained in architecture before transitioning to model making. In almost every project, they work closely with architects and designers to ensure that the renderings and concepts will stand the test of physicality. Tenguerian likens this process to translation, and he noted that he has often caught architectural mistakes in doing it.

[Tenguerian's model of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which the museum will use to determine how to most efficiently make use of the uninhabited corners of the building, of which there are many. Tenguerian cites this as one project in which he is very actively involved as a designer and creative thinker.]

But model making involves handiwork, engineering, and broader "problem solving" as well—and this is what they say is lacking in the young workforce. For Ed Wood and Leszek Stefanski, co-owners of Radii Inc. (which has modeled the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center towers, as well as worked on the New York panorama at the Queens Museum), the basic foundation of model making lies in skills such as sketching on paper and knowing how to operate a saw. On top of that, you have to be able to envision how the model looks when it's finished, how it comes together, how it fits into its space and display—all before you even begin to work on it. If the model needs to be transported on an elevator, for instance, and it's too small or narrow to fit the complete model, it might have to be made in pieces and assembled on site. If a model has to be shipped across the country, arrangements have to be discussed way ahead of time. Sometimes, Wood noted, first-class airplane seats are bought for the models. It's the cheapest way. That sort of forethought isn't necessarily required of traditional architects, they said.

[The team working hard at Radii Inc.]

With no formalized model making training programs out there, Radii and similar firms depend on apprenticeships with aspiring model makers in order to get them to learn the trade. But it's easy on neither the trainer nor the trainee. "They know absolutely nothing about model making," said Lenon Kaplan, who runs Lenon Models and has worked on pieces for Trump Soho and 10 Madison Square West. Wood and Stefanski said it's difficult to predict how their new hires will fare in the business.

[Radii's model for 5 Franklin Place, an unbuilt residential tower designed by Ben van Berkel. The model features LED lighting that changes color to illuminate the tower.]

That's perhaps why Michael Kennedy, owner and managing director of Kennedy Fabrications, the firm behind the models for new condo buildings 500 West 21st Street and 252 East 57th Street, has done away with the architectural background requirement altogether in his search for new apprentices. While the other firms still tend to pull from the pool of recent arch-school graduates, Kennedy said only about a quarter of his firm has an architectural degree. The rest are composed of industrial designers, sculptors, painters, furniture designers, or someone who simply expressed interest and a willingness to learn. Kennedy prefers that they learn the skills and craft through him, anyway. "We're an odd little business," he said. "We're like leprechauns."

[Examples of Radii's portfolio, displayed on the walls of the studio.]

And every leprechaun has his pot of gold. For these five model makers, the bill for any single project can range from a few thousand dollars, for singular, smaller pieces made over a few days, to over a million dollars, though the latter variety are quite rare and require many hands on deck to craft several pieces over longer periods of time. Still, the average cost for a project falls within the $100,000 and $300,000 range and takes a few months to complete.

[Some pieces meant for interior models in their nascent stages at Radii Inc.]

"What most people don't understand," Stefanski said, "is that a good model is like a good car." Nowadays, everyone wants models with extremely precise details and special effects of many different types. Most real estate models are wired up so that, at the click of a button or the touch of an iPad, the interested buyer's chosen unit would light up, while the others either remain or turn off. Most developers and architects request interior models and amenity models, which often require color and material matching that may take weeks of coordination and communication with designers and brainstorming creative ideas for how to replicate everything on a smaller scale.

[The model for 252 East 57th Street, as seen in the sales office. The model was made by Kennedy Fabrications and stands over eight feet tall, without its base. Photo by Will Femia.]

According to sales agents, these standout details on the models in turn help turn the buyers onto the building. Richard Cantor, a sales agent for 443 Greenwich Street, calls this the "dollhouse effect." Seeing a physical representation of the building in front of them produces a "visceral" reaction that allows them to really see themselves in the unit. The sales offices are often designed around the model(s), supplementing its "dollhouse effect" by offering samples of the materials used in the units, room recreations that are decorated by the designers of the buildings, and other features. In the sales office for 252 East 57th Street, the almost 9-foot model, a Kennedy fabrication, stands in its own dedicated room, intended to be viewed from an adjacent seating area so that its scale seems magnificent and not overwhelming.

[The model of 252 East 57th Street. Photo by Will Femia.]

The model for 45 East 22nd Street, which will be the tallest building in the Flatiron District once it goes up, is placed in a room with a view of the building site. It's a way of allowing potential buyers to visualize how the building will look in its slot using the model, designed by Radii. Work is just beginning on the building site, and yet, almost 50 percent of the units have already sold, according to developer Ian Bruce Eichner. "It's all theater, right?" said Kennedy.

[Inside Radii Inc.'s studio, located in Hoboken.]

Not only are developers now willing to shell out minor fortunes for their models—"You could buy a house in the suburbs," said Dina Lewis, a sales agent, of the price on the model for 11 Beach Street, also designed by Kennedy— they're now coming in droves, and the model makers have to turn away a substantial number of inquiries. Kaplan, whose workshop is on the smaller side when compared to Radii or Kennedy, is the most selective: only about 20 percent make the cut. He simply doesn't have the time, manpower, or, importantly, interest to take on every project that comes his way.

Just a few years ago, this wasn't the case. Kaplan was quoted by The Real Deal saying that he had plans to shut down his shop. When the recession hit the real estate market, it naturally took a toll on the model making industry as well. Developers stopped spending money on fancy sales galleries and therefore, stopped commissioning models. Firms stayed afloat by finishing off existing projects and taking on alternate types of work. Kennedy did some international projects while taking some jobs making window displays while Wood and Stefansky of Radii Inc. took on more work building models for architectural competitions (which is actually their preferred type of work, though it's often more stressful and less financially rewarding). Meanwhile, Kaplan went for a half-year without a single project and had to reduce his office size and staff by 80 percent.

[Ed Wood and Leszek Stefanski, co-owners of Radii Inc., in their studio.]

Five years later, Kaplan is now booked for the next four months and is currently not accepting any other jobs. "We don't need to bust our balls anymore," he said. It's an incredible turnaround, and one that he believes will sustain him through the next few years, at the very least. Perhaps surprisingly, the model makers are unfazed by the suggestion that new technologies, such as 3D printing, will put them out of business. Most of them actually use 3D printers in their studios for smaller pieces, perhaps, but it is, like a handsaw or hammer or laser cutter, just another tool in their arsenal. They are in no way an adequate substitute for the human calculation and vision required of model makers. Stefanski emphasized that he and his partner Wood are pro-technology and always excited to incorporate new processes and tools into their work process. But for them, the 3D printer was only a small step forward. It will never replace them, he said. It's just "not good enough."
—Wesley Yiin

[Inside the studio of Radii. Photos by Max Touhey.]