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Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile

According to John Ochsendorf author of Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile, "Rafael Guastavino was one of the greatest American architects you’ve never heard of. (1)” An immigrant from Spain, Rafael Guastavino Sr. arrived to America in 1881 with his nine year old son, Rafael Guastavino, Jr., his housekeeper and her two daughters. Both father and son rose to architectural fame with their fireproof construction vaulting system, at a time when major cities across the country were being ravaged by fires. It was the growing public concern for fire prevention that allowed Guastavino to enter the American construction industry—in turn revolutionizing the way buildings were being constructed. In this meticulously researched book, Ochsendorf looks at the history of the Guastavino Company and places it in the context of late nineteenth and twentieth century American architecture and building technology.

The story of the Guastavino Company is the same story the “American Dream” is modeled after. Trained as master builder in Spain, Guastavino Sr. encountered many of the challenges newly arrived immigrants face. He looked for work as an architect because there wasn’t yet a formalized system of education for master builders in America. His first success on a national and international level arrived with the commission for Mckim Mead & White’s Boston Public Library—a masterpiece of the “American Renaissance” and the site of the first major exhibition devoted to the Guastavino Company and its architectural and historical legacy. The exhibition opens in late September.

In chapter five of the book, Ochsendorf attributes the successes of the Guastavino Company to many factors including the wealth and nationalism surrounding the “American Renaissance,” and their professional relationships with some of the leading architects of the time—Cass Gilbert, John M. Carrère, Thomas Hastings, Edward P. York and Phillip Sawyer among others, including their already long established relationship with the illustrious firm of McKim, Mead & White.

Having contributed to the design of structural tile vaultings to more than one thousand buildings across the United States, the Guastavino Company declined with the introduction of the glass, steel and concrete of modernist architecture. After 75 years of building some of the most significant buildings in the United States and the world, the company closed permanently in 1962. In chapter seven, the author highlights the legacy of the Guastavino Company, but acknowledges in the preface that there is a need for more research, particularly on the personal, commercial, and architectural aspects of the company’s work.

Each of the seven chapters in the book brings out the exquisite craftsmanship of the Guastavino Company’s work though the photography of Michael Freeman. The book includes an exhaustive yet incomplete list containing more than six hundred projects in thirty states and six countries with extant buildings with Guastavino Tile Vaulting. The Guastavino Tile Vaulting enthusiast or those with an interest in the built environment or architectural history will find this list invaluable.

The landmark exhibition “Palaces for the People: Guastavino and America’s Great Public Spaces” curated by John Ochsendorf, is scheduled to open on September 28. It is also scheduled to travel to the National Building Museum in Washington, DC early next year.

1. Sam Alis, "The Greatest Architect You've Never Head of," Boston Globe, February 26, 2011.

For more information on the extensive Guastavino Project click here.

About Author

Anulfo AKA The Evolving Critic is a preservationist and blogger with a strong interest in architectural history, urbanism, and the parallels between fashion and architecture. He holds degrees in Tourism Planning and Development from the University of New Hampshire and in the History of Art and Architecture from Boston University. Anulfo has written for the Boston Society of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He oversaw BR&S's blog, Our Daily Red, from 2012-14.

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