New York celebrates the Catalan vault of Rafael Guastavino

Valencia-born architect Rafael Guastavino incorporated the Catalan vault system in over 300 buildings in Manhattan. Famous buildings such as the Grand Central Station, Saint John the Divine Cathedral, the Queensboro Bridge and the City Hall subway station, were built using this technique popularised in the U.S. by Guastavino.

CNA / Ariadna Matamoros

December 15, 2010 10:17 PM

New York (ACN).- New York City would not be the same without architect Rafael Guastavino’s ‘Catalan vault’ tiling system. Over 300 19th century buildings in Manhattan were constructed using the unique vaulting style, which has existed in Catalonia since the 17th century. Guastavino patented this traditional Catalan construction system in Barcelona and later brought it to the United States. Together with his son, he formed the Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company, which went on to construct ‘Catalan vaults’ in iconic New York buildings such as Grand Central Station, the Queensboro Bridge and on Ellis Island. There are over 1,000 works by the Guastavino architects in the United States.

The Guastavino architects are comprised of father and son, Rafael Guastavino i Moreno (1842-1908) and Rafael Guastavino i Esposito (1875-1950). Rafael Guastavino i Moreno brought the ‘Catalan vault’ to the United States, after having patented in Barcelona, despite being widely used in Catalonia. However, Guastavino further developed the technique and made it his style’s cornerstone. His son, Rafael Guastavino i Esposito, inherited his father’s legacy, incorporating the ‘Catalan vault’ style into buildings throughout the United States.

Guastavino arrived to New York during the rise of two architectural trends in the city: the ‘Beaux Arts’ style that was influencing the American Renaissance and steel began being used in the large infrastructures of the period.

In addition, he came at a time when mass fires were sweeping through US cities, such as in the cases of Boston and Washington DC. This prompted architects to think about new ways of constructing buildings so that they would be fire resistant.

According to Kent Diebolt, an engineer specialised in New York architecture, “part of Guastavino’s success” is because Catalan vaulting allowed him to construct buildings with non-combustible materials such as brick or tile. He added that using bricks was “relatively cheap and could be constructed rapidly, in addition to being both an aesthetic and structural element”.

Derek Trelstad, another engineer and an expert on Guastavino, said that the Valencian architect emigrated to the United States “in search of better materials” than he could not find in Spain. “He came in search of better natural cements... but was frustrated because he did not find any”, said the engineer. He also spoke of the strength of Guastavino’s Catalan vault system. “I don’t think any of his constructions have ever fallen”.

Carrying on his legacy

For the 100th anniversary of Rafael Guastavino’s death (València, 1842 - Asheville, North Carolina 1908), the AIA Centre for Architecture of New York and the Catalan Center of New York presented the book ‘Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile’ by MIT professor John Ochsendorf.

Before emigrating to New York, Guastavino constructed a building in the Catalan town of Vilassar de Dalt, the Massa Theatre. Since then, the Town Hall has celebrated the architect and last year, they organised the first ‘Biennial Guastavino’, which was presented in New York in efforts to continue the acclaimed architect’s legacy.


During the 1920s in New York, Guastavino collaborated with several public works in the city and around the US. He introduced Catalan vaulting to iconic structures such as Grand Central Station, the Queensboro Bridge, the St. John the Divine Cathedral and the NYC metro station City Hall.

According to Diebolt, while Catalan vaulting is still being used in Catalonia, it has become “old-fashioned” in the United States. “After World War II, architectural style began to change and so did construction techniques… in a way that valued manual construction less (i.e. Catalan vaulting) and processes became more industrialised.”

The Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company started to decline in the late 50s. In 1962, professor George R. Collins of New York’s Columbia University contacted the company and acquired more than 2,000 drawings, photographs and project sketches that can now be viewed in the university’s Architecture Library.