RTPI Hosts Architectural Tour Of Facility

When patrons go to the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, it’s usually to see what’s inside and around the building. Yesterday, patrons gathered to see the building itself.

RTPI held an hour-long architecture tour of the facility at 7 p.m. Thursday, which was led by J. Marlin Casker, local architect. The tour identified the progress of architectural styles over the past 100 years and identified specific architectural influences of Robert Stern, RTPI’s architect.

To begin, the group of guests were lectured about the evolution of architectural thinking, beginning in the 1910s.

“In order for everyone to understand why this building looks the way it does, we need to understand a little bit of history first,” said Casker.

According to Casker, architecture underwent drastic changes between 1913 and 1930, and he cites the World War I as the impetus for change. Before WWI, architecture was almost completely based on gothic architecture. Following WWI, buildings nearly doubled in size.

Modernism became popular, and architecture slowly stopped imitating historical architecture. He referenced the differences between Grand Central Terminal and the Woolworth Building, both of which were built in 1913, and the Chrysler and Empire State buildings, which were built in 1930.

“To build in the 1930s the same way you were building in the 1910s just wouldn’t have made sense,” said Casker. “It wouldn’t have looked right, so you can see the difference in attitudes. By the 1930s, there were new models coming from Europe, and also from the heads of the people here. We call it Art Deco.”

Casker said that buildings kept a modern look into the 1960s, and cited Rockefeller Center, the United Nations Building, and the Guggenheim Museum. However, architecture changed again in the 1960s.

“Two things really caused a ripple effect in the 1960s,” said Casker. “One was the destruction of Penn Station, which had only been built in 1910. It only lasted for 60 years before it was torn down – it was truly a tragedy. The other event also had to do with Grand Central Terminal, when someone proposed to put a tower on it. People thought it would look awful, and wouldn’t keep continuity with the city.”

In the 1960s, architects started thinking about setting instead of just modernism. Architects began using a proposed building’s setting to influence the architecture of a building. This point brought Casker back to RTPI.

Stern was tasked with building a practical museum which reflected the look of nature and the ideals of wisdom and knowledge. With all this in mind, he used simple geometric patterns, a facade which imitated nature and a foundation of strength and practicality to build RTPI.

“Mr. Stern knew his history,” said Casker. “He called on what he remembered from ancient sources. (RTPI) is almost a temple plan – the ancient Greek temples had four spaces: the porch, the vestibule, the sanctuary and the treasury. Whether he was thinking about that when he laid this out, I don’t know, but it imitates it very well. Outside it looks like a one-story building, inside it looks like a two-story building, just like the Greek temples.”

Casker described in detail the columns which guests can see in the vestibule of RTPI. The columns are of the ionic order, and taper slightly at the top. According to Casker, Stern insisted that trees which had been standing dead for 40 years be used, and the holes in the columns where larva once bored serve to accent the theme of nature further. However, the columns are only a facade, as the building is actually supported by concrete and steel, hidden from view.

Casker also talked about the arches of RTPI, which are reoccurring and are placed on the same geographical plane, which makes them aesthetically pleasing. Walking into RTPI, one passes through four identical arches before reaching the treasury.

“These arches are repeated four times here, and will show up twice more on a different (geographical plane),” said Casker. “It’s just like good music, a theme is set and a pattern is subtlety repeated throughout.”

The tour ended in the library of RTPI, which was built to give the illusion that one was in the middle of nature while dwelling there.

“In the library, we see the arches we saw out in the vestibule,” said Casker. “The great windows here … the view out suggests that we are bringing the forest into the room. The carpet is (green), and suggests a lawn. The pattern of four columns to a wall is also repeated here.”

Following the architecture tour, guests were encouraged to take a more thorough look around the facility, and Casker was available for questions.

RTPI’s next event will be a behind the scenes archive tour led by Twan Leenders, RTPI president, on July 25 at 2 p.m.