Guastavino vault

Guastavino: Vaulted Vision

Guastavino vault
Queensborough Bridge Market

Guastavino was once a household name among American architects. The Guastavino Company, led by a father-son team of Spanish immigrants, oversaw the construction of thousands of thin-tile vaults across the USA, including over 200 in New York City, between the 1880s and 1950s. From Grand Central Terminal’s Oyster Bar and Whispering Gallery to the Municipal Building to the Queensborough Bridge, New Yorkers walk amidst Guastavino tiles every day, often without noticing.

The Museum of the City of New York is currently showcasing an exhibition, entitled Palaces for the People: Guastavino and the Art of Structural Tile, that pays homage to this outstanding artisanal family.

The story of the Guastavino family and their long-standing architectural legacy in the USA began in Valéncia. Rafael Guastavino Moreno was born in 1842, to a family of musical craftsmen. At the age of 19, he began studying at the Special School for Masters of Works in Barcelona. When he graduated, he received the title of master builder, rather than architect.

This distinction in title meant that Guastavino’s training emphasised the hands-on aspects of building. Most importantly, his training in Barcelona introduced him to the ancient building techniques of Spain, such as tile vaulting, which has been used since the fifteenth century.

The earliest known origins of tile vaulting are in Valéncia. Unlike traditional stone vaulting, tile vaulting is built from multiple layers of thin bricks laid flat, which are set in place with fast-setting plaster, without the need for support from below. These features made tile vaulting revolutionary as it was lightweight, low-maintenance, fireproof and capable of supporting large loads.

One of the earliest and most ambitious buildings that Guastavino designed during his career was the Batlló Factory, a major textile mill, in Catalonia. The building blended traditional tile vaulting with industrial innovations, and helped him earn prestige in Barcelona. In 1881, when Rafael Guastavino sailed to New York with his youngest son, Rafael Jr., he brought the tile vaulting technology he had mastered with him. The first American buildings he designed and constructed in New York City all used tile vaulting.

The USA did not have the same tradition of masonry vaulting as Europe. Prior to 1850, there were only about a dozen masonry-vaulted buildings in the USA.

At the time when Guastavino arrived to the United States, there was a growing demand for fireproof construction. By transforming masonry vaulting into a modern, fireproof construction system, Guastavino was able to quickly gain recognition and an entry into the construction industry. With the help of a developer, Guastavino filed patents for his tile vaulting methods.

The Boston Public Library, designed by the firm McKim, Mead and White, marked Guastavino’s first major project in the USA. In 1889, Guastavino was commissioned to construct tile vaulting throughout the library. The success of the library allowed Guastavino to incorporate the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company in July 1889. McKim, Mead and White’s confidence in the vaulting system impressed other architectural firms and led to dozens of commissions for the Guastavino Company.

One of the most extraordinary aspects of their patented vaulting techniques was that it exposed the tiles of the vaulting – a defining moment in the history of tile vaulting in America. By marketing a system that was both structural and decorative, the Guastavino Company pushed the boundaries of American architecture. The use of decorative tile vaulting was captured years later in projects such as the Della Robbia Room of the Vanderbilt Hotel in New York (now Wolfgang’s Steakhouse at Park Avenue) and the Nebraska State Capitol Building.

In its earlier years, the full potential of the Guastavino vaulting technology was realised in such monumental buildings as the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. In New York City, the Guastavino Company designed the vaulting in the City Hall Subway Station, the Queensboro Bridgemarket (now Food Emporium beneath the Queensboro Bridge), and St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University.

When Rafael Guastavino passed away in 1908, the company was taken over by his son Rafael Guastavino Jr. Under the leadership of the younger Guastavino, the company built a number of dome structures including the Elephant House of the Bronx Zoo in New York City, and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C.

One of the company’s most significant projects was the construction of the dome of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1909), in New York City. The dome, which measured 135 feet, was a miraculous feat in engineering, placing it among the world’s largest domes.

Guastavino City Hall
City Hall subway station

By the time the Guastavino Company closed its doors in 1962, the originality of its soaring vaults helped shape the history of architecture in New York and the USA. The Guastavino legacy can be seen today in hundreds of buildings across the country, including the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Terminal, Carnegie Hall, the Municipal Building in New York, the Widener Library at Harvard University, Duke University Chapel, and the Ellis Island Registry Hall.

Guastavino Grand Central Station
Oyster Bar Grand Central Station

Outside the USA, Guastavino’s work influenced prominent architects such as Antoni Gaudi and Doménech I Montaner and continues to shape generations of architects in Spain, who visit Batlló Factory as a model of his work.

The exhibition on the work of the Guastavino Company will be on display at the Museum of the City of New York until 7th September 2014.

Guastavino Chamber Street
Municipal Buildings, Chamber Street

The exhibition features specially-commissioned, large-scale colour photography by Michael Freeman; original Guastavino Company drawings, patents, and advertisements; 3D-printed scale models; atmospheric videos; a full-scale tiled vault built by masons from the International Masonry Institute; and construction demonstrations. Construction was filmed using stop-motion photography so it could be integrated into the exhibition.

The project was organised by 2008 MacArthur Fellow John Ochsendorf, an associate professor at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Architecture and the author of Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile (Princeton Architectural Press).

Photography credits: Untapped Cities by Michelle Young and Maria Chernaya; plus Oyster Bar, Grand Central Terminal by Michael Freeman.

 Based on an article that first appeared in Tile & Stone Journal, July 2014.

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