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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.

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15 December 2010 10:17 PM

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ACN / Ariadna Matamoros

New York (ACN).- New York City would not be the same without architect Rafael Guastavino\u2019s \u2018Catalan vault\u2019 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 \u2018Catalan vaults\u2019 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 \u2018Catalan vault\u2019 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\u2019s cornerstone. His son, Rafael Guastavino i Esposito, inherited his father\u2019s legacy, incorporating the \u2018Catalan vault\u2019 style into buildings throughout the United States.

Guastavino arrived to New York during the rise of two architectural trends in the city: the \u2018Beaux Arts\u2019 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, \u201Cpart of Guastavino\u2019s success\u201D is because Catalan vaulting allowed him to construct buildings with non-combustible materials such as brick or tile. He added that using bricks was \u201Crelatively cheap and could be constructed rapidly, in addition to being both an aesthetic and structural element\u201D.

Derek Trelstad, another engineer and an expert on Guastavino, said that the Valencian architect emigrated to the United States \u201Cin search of better materials\u201D than he could not find in Spain. \u201CHe came in search of better natural cements... but was frustrated because he did not find any\u201D, said the engineer. He also spoke of the strength of Guastavino\u2019s Catalan vault system. \u201CI don\u2019t think any of his constructions have ever fallen\u201D.

Carrying on his legacy

For the 100th anniversary of Rafael Guastavino\u2019s 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 \u2018Guastavino Vaulting: The Art of Structural Tile\u2019 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 \u2018Biennial Guastavino\u2019, which was presented in New York in efforts to continue the acclaimed architect\u2019s legacy.

Old-fashioned

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 \u201Cold-fashioned\u201D in the United States. \u201CAfter World War II, architectural style began to change and so did construction techniques\u2026 in a way that valued manual construction less (i.e. Catalan vaulting) and processes became more industrialised.\u201D

The Guastavino Fireproof Construction Company started to decline in the late 50s. In 1962, professor George R. Collins of New York\u2019s Columbia University contacted the company and acquired more than 2,000 drawings, photographs and project sketches that can now be viewed in the university\u2019s Architecture Library.

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  • The City Hall subway station in Manhattan (by A. Matamoros)

  • The Grand Central Station, which has Catalan vaults (by A. Matamoros)

  • The Queensboro Bridge interior (by A. Matamoros)

  • The City Hall subway station in Manhattan (by A. Matamoros)
  • The Grand Central Station, which has Catalan vaults (by A. Matamoros)
  • The Queensboro Bridge interior (by A. Matamoros)
New York celebrates the Catalan vault of Rafael Guastavino